Fact Check: 'Pulse' Column Does NOT Accurately Describe COVID Risk And Misleads With VAERS Data And Claims The Unvaccinated Are No Threat

Fact Check

  • by: Dean Miller
Fact Check: 'Pulse' Column Does NOT Accurately Describe COVID Risk And Misleads With VAERS Data And Claims The Unvaccinated Are No Threat Misstates Data

Does an opinion column in The Pulse accurately characterize the fatality risk COVID poses and does it correctly describe what is shown by data in the VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System)? No, that's not true: Without noting that COVID-19 is an unusually contagious infection, the article greatly de-emphasizes the risk of COVID to communities, while grossly overstating the proof of dangers of the COVID vaccine by implying that every death reported to VAERS was caused by the vaccine, something mortality experts say is not true.

The claims appeared in a July 26, 2021, Facebook post (archived here) on the Collective Evolution page under the title "Vaccine Segregation Continues: Is A 'Fourth Wave' Set To Be Blamed On The 'Anti-Vaxxers'?" It continued:

Virus outbreaks have long been blamed on people who choose not to vaccinate, or on children who are not vaccinated ... The general scientific consensus is that more than a billion people have been infected already, which is why for most people the survival rate of COVID is extremely high ... As of July 7th, according to the CDC's Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS), there have been approximately 7000 deaths, 6000 permanent disabilities, 23,000 hospitalizations, 55,000 emergency room visits & 400,000 other adverse reactions recorded as a result of the shot

This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:

Facebook screenshot

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Wed Aug 25 18:51:28 2021 UTC)

The article expresses a number of opinions, which are not the province of fact checking. But the opinions are buttressed by several fact claims that do not reflect the facts on the ground. This fact check addresses the three major claims in the article.

Claim: The COVID survival rate is "extremely high"

The article says: "The general scientific consensus is that more than a billion people have been infected already, which is why for most people the survival rate of COVID is extremely high, nearly 100 percent for healthy people under the age of 60."

This claim takes advantage of the human tendency to view 1% as a small number, while to public health officials, a fatality rate of 1% foretells thousands of deaths when the disease is easily passed from person to person in populations that number in the millions. As of August 24, 2021, COVID had killed 628,000 in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Public health officials have repeatedly explained that the problem with cherry-picking one statistic about infectious diseases is that their threat lies in the combination of lethality, transmission and mode of transmission, among other factors. What makes COVID-19 dangerous is that it is transmitted through the air, it turns out to be a highly infectious disease and some of the effects of infection are long-lasting. Those factors are, in part, why it has been far more lethal than flu.

A study of hospitalized patients in France, published in Lancet Respiratory Medicine on March 1, 2021, found COVID is more likely to kill than is the flu. While the rate of hospitalization of children for COVID is lower than for flu, there is a higher death rate for in-hospital pediatric COVID patients than for those who have the flu.

The CDC has also taken pains to note that infection fatality rates vary significantly by age and by location, making The Pulse's 99% survival rate claim (a 1% infection fatality rate) a simplification. It hides the level of danger to people in states where the Association of American Medical Colleges reported ambulances parked at hospitals, waiting for space to open up for COVID patients as the delta variant spread rapidly in the wake of relaxed pandemic-fighting measures.

Claim: The VAERS database shows thousands have died "as a result of the shot"

The Pulse article says: "What about the safety of the vaccine? As of July 7th, according to the CDC's Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS), there have been approximately 7000 deaths, 6000 permanent disabilities, 23,000 hospitalizations, 55,000 emergency room visits & 400,000 other adverse reactions recorded as a result of the shot (U.S.)."

That suggestion, that VAERS shows the COVID-19 vaccines resulted in thousands of deaths, disabilities and hospitalizations, shows The Pulse either ignored or did not understand the multiple explanations and warnings the VAERS operators provide before users can access the VAERS database.

Anyone with internet access can add a report to the VAERS list of reports. The public access link to it expressly warns against unwarranted conclusions based on VAERS material because the list only provides a tally of unverified notes about any health event people experience after they are vaccinated.

The list itself cannot be used to prove or quantify, since all it shows is a chronological correlation, not the causal link that would be more difficult to establish. It's the equivalent of a police precinct's running "blotter" of reports that may serve as a starting point for police work, not an end point.

The Pulse ignored or did not understand the VAERS website warnings including:

When evaluating data from VAERS, it is important to note that for any reported event, no cause-and-effect relationship has been established ... VAERS collects data on any adverse event following vaccination, be it coincidental or truly caused by a vaccine. The report of an adverse event to VAERS is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event ... VAERS reports can be submitted voluntarily by anyone, including healthcare providers, patients, or family members. Reports vary in quality and completeness. They often lack details and sometimes can have information that contains errors.

And, also:

No proof that the event was caused by the vaccine is required in order for VAERS to accept the report. VAERS accepts all reports without judging whether the event was caused by the vaccine.

To gain access to the VAERS data, the writer for The Pulse would have to affirm having read the VAERS website's warning about what VAERS is and is not.

VAERS assent form.JPG

Claim: Unvaccinated people "are not really putting anyone who is vaccinated in harm's way."

The Pulse article decries efforts to push more people to get vaccinated, ignoring the advice of public health experts who point out that a large population of unvaccinated people provides a human petri dish in which the SARS-CoV-2 virus can replicate more freely, which means variants are more likely. The delta variant appears more likely to cause break-out infections of those who are vaccinated.

With the delta variant causing a surge in cases nationwide in mid-August 2021, the CDC's information page on the more dangerous form of COVID said unvaccinated persons are its top concern:

Unvaccinated people remain the greatest concern: Although breakthrough infections happen much less often than infections in unvaccinated people, individuals infected with the Delta variant, including fully vaccinated people with symptomatic breakthrough infections, can transmit it to others. CDC is continuing to assess data on whether fully vaccinated people with asymptomatic breakthrough infections can transmit. However, the greatest risk of transmission is among unvaccinated people who are much more likely to contract, and therefore transmit the virus.

The CDC wrote that in the days leading up to its August 19, 2021, update there was a "rapid and alarming" rise in the number of COVID cases and in hospitalizations. Worse, "new data began to emerge that the Delta variant was more infectious and was leading to increased transmissibility when compared to other variants, even in vaccinated individuals."

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.


  Dean Miller

Lead Stories staff writer Dean Miller has edited daily and weekly newspapers, worked as a reporter for more than a decade and is co-author of two non-fiction books. After a one-year Harvard Nieman Fellowship, he served as Director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy for six years. As Senior Vice President/Content at Connecticut Public Broadcasting, a dual licensee, he oversaw radio, TV and print journalists, and documentary producers. He moved west to teach journalism at Western Washington University, edit The Port Townsend Leader and write the twice-weekly Save The Free Press column for the Seattle Times. Miller won the 2007 national Mirror Award for news industry coverage and he led the team that won the 2005 Scripps Howard first amendment prize. 

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