Factcheck: Hank Aaron's Death Was Not Related to Covid-19 Vaccine

On Jan. 5, Hank Aaron, the legendary home run hitter, posted on Twitter that he had been vaccinated for the coronavirus at the Morehouse School of Medicine, along with other prominent civil rights figures in Atlanta who were 75 or older and thus part of the group at the highest priority to be inoculated.

“I hope you do the same!” he wrote.

Seventeen days later, Mr. Aaron died at the age of 86.

Now, anti-vaccine activists, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent vaccine skeptic, are seizing on his death to suggest — without evidence — that there might be a link.

“That was a pure coincidence,” countered Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the founding dean of the Morehouse medical school and secretary of health and human services in the George H.W. Bush administration, who was vaccinated along with Mr. Aaron. He told the Atlanta station WSB-TV, “It is though, if you might say, Hank was in a car before the day he died, and we try and attribute his death to being in a car.”

The Fulton County medical examiner has also said there was nothing to suggest that Mr. Aaron had an allergic or anaphylactic reaction related to the vaccine.

Still, Mr. Aaron’s death has gotten caught up in a swirl of misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the coronavirus and society’s efforts to fight it. Skepticism about the vaccines has emerged as one of the latest forms of resistance that health officials have confronted throughout the pandemic, as critics have flouted social distancing rules and bristled at covering their faces with masks.

Demonstrators forced the authorities in Los Angeles to close the entrance to Dodger Stadium, one of the largest vaccination sites in the country, for an hour on Saturday. About 50 protesters had gathered there, with some holding posters that said “99.96% Survival Rate” and “End the Lockdown.”

Health officials say that so far, with more than 23 million doses administered in the United States, the two vaccines already authorized for use, appear to be quite safe. There have been a few severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, but they are treatable and considered rare, and no deaths have been reported from them. The rates at which anaphylaxis has occurred so far — five cases in every million doses of the vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech, and 2.8 cases per million for the vaccine by Moderna — are in line with what happens with other widely used vaccines.

At a meeting on Wednesday of expert advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Tom Shimabukuro of the C.D.C. said, “Overall, the safety profiles of the Covid-19 vaccines are reassuring and consistent with that observed in the pre-authorization clinical trials.”

He said the federal government had “implemented the most intense and comprehensive vaccine safety monitoring program in history.”

Even so, anti-vaccine activists have sought to undermine the public’s confidence in the vaccines, using social media to spread unfounded accounts of people dying or suffering drastic side effects.

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Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

Currently more than 150 million people — almost half the population — are eligible to be vaccinated. But each state makes the final decision about who goes first. The nation’s 21 million health care workers and three million residents of long-term care facilities were the first to qualify. In mid-January, federal officials urged all states to open up eligibility to everyone 65 and older and to adults of any age with medical conditions that put them at high risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from Covid-19. Adults in the general population are at the back of the line. If federal and state health officials can clear up bottlenecks in vaccine distribution, everyone 16 and older will become eligible as early as this spring or early summer. The vaccine hasn’t been approved in children, although studies are underway. It may be months before a vaccine is available for anyone under the age of 16. Go to your state health website for up-to-date information on vaccination policies in your area

You should not have to pay anything out of pocket to get the vaccine, although you will be asked for insurance information. If you don’t have insurance, you should still be given the vaccine at no charge. Congress passed legislation this spring that bars insurers from applying any cost sharing, such as a co-payment or deductible. It layered on additional protections barring pharmacies, doctors and hospitals from billing patients, including those who are uninsured. Even so, health experts do worry that patients might stumble into loopholes that leave them vulnerable to surprise bills. This could happen to those who are charged a doctor visit fee along with their vaccine, or Americans who have certain types of health coverage that do not fall under the new rules. If you get your vaccine from a doctor’s office or urgent care clinic, talk to them about potential hidden charges. To be sure you won’t get a surprise bill, the best bet is to get your vaccine at a health department vaccination site or a local pharmacy once the shots become more widely available.

Probably not. The answer depends on a number of factors, including the supply in your area at the time you’re vaccinated. Check your state health department website for more information about the vaccines available in your state. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the only two vaccines currently approved, although a third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson is on the way.

That is to be determined. It’s possible that Covid-19 vaccinations will become an annual event, just like the flu shot. Or it may be that the benefits of the vaccine last longer than a year. We have to wait to see how durable the protection from the vaccines is. To determine this, researchers are going to be tracking vaccinated people to look for “breakthrough cases” — those people who get sick with Covid-19 despite vaccination. That is a sign of weakening protection and will give researchers clues about how long the vaccine lasts. They will also be monitoring levels of antibodies and T cells in the blood of vaccinated people to determine whether and when a booster shot might be needed. It’s conceivable that people may need boosters every few months, once a year or only every few years. It’s just a matter of waiting for the data.

Employers do have the right to compel their workers to be vaccinated once a vaccine is formally approved. Many hospital systems, for example, require annual flu shots. But employees can seek exemptions based on medical reasons or religious beliefs. In such cases, employers are supposed to provide a “reasonable accommodation” — with a coronavirus vaccine, for example, a worker might be allowed to work if they wear a mask, or to work from home.

If you have other questions about the coronavirus vaccine, please read our full F.A.Q.

Polls have shown that public confidence in the vaccines has solidified generally in recent months, but confidence among African Americans is running lower than among other demographic groups, even though the virus has swept through that community with a punishing fury.

That is why the Morehouse School of Medicine assembled pioneering civil rights leaders like Mr. Aaron and Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador, to get vaccinated and lead by example.

“They marched to the polls to secure our rights,” Valerie Montgomery Rice, the dean and president of the medical school, said in a statement. “And now, they are rolling up their sleeves to save lives.”

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