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COVID-Vaccine Health Risks: What You Should Know

An EMT worker prepares a Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at a mobile vaccination drive in Vernon, Los Angeles, Calif., March 17, 2021. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Innumeracy may not be quite as dangerous as the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but it’s not that far away. Today, we’re taking a deep dive into the health risks of the COVID-19 vaccines. Oh, and to the surprise of no one, Elizabeth Warren is an epic hypocrite on eliminating the filibuster.

How Much Should You Worry about a Severe Reaction to the COVID-19 Vaccines?

Yesterday, in the context of terrorists attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, we talked about the conflation of what is rare and what is impossible.

Strong adverse reactions to the coronavirus vaccines are rare, but they are not impossible. If you’ve gotten a vaccination already, your vaccination-event organizers probably had emergency medical personnel standing by, or the shot was administered at a medical center. If you haven’t, when you get the shot, they’ll ask you if you’ve ever had a strong adverse reaction to a shot before, and after getting jabbed, they’ll have you hang around for ten to 15 minutes to make sure you don’t faint or have some other sign of a strong reaction.

The conclusion you take from a set of data will often depend upon how those data were presented to you. A series of not necessarily representative anecdotes, listed one after another, will create the impression that something happens frequently. To use an example far from the world of vaccines, this twelve-minute video would probably leave you with the impression that Sam Darnold is a phenomenally talented quarterback who had a great 2020 season, and that the Jets would be insane to trade him to another team. (If you happen to be the general manager of another NFL team, please study that video thoroughly and call up Jets general manager Joe Douglas with an offer. And whatever you do, don’t watch the rest of Darnold’s plays from last year.)

We’re all human, but our DNA contains all kinds of unusual varieties. Hunting Four Horsemen notes small groups of human beings who are effectively immune, or nearly immune, to malaria and anthrax. This is why your doctor can rarely be 100 percent certain that your body will react to a medication the way it is supposed to, or that you won’t have unexpected side effects.

Earlier this week, the CDC updated its guidance about adverse reactions to the vaccines, and noted that more than “109 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered in the United States from December 14, 2020, through March 15, 2021. During this time, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System received 1,913 reports of death (0.0018%) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services runs VAERS, and anyone can submit a report. But the HHS website notes that because it accepts reports from everyone, not every account should be taken at face value until it’s been more thoroughly investigated and verified:

While very important in monitoring vaccine safety, VAERS reports alone cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused or contributed to an adverse event or illness. The reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable. In large part, reports to VAERS are voluntary, which means they are subject to biases. This creates specific limitations on how the data can be used scientifically. Data from VAERS reports should always be interpreted with these limitations in mind.

If I wanted to freak you out, I could list off all different kinds of serious reactions that people have reported after receiving a coronavirus vaccines. The CDC notes that “anaphylaxis — a severe allergic reaction that can cause the airways to tighten — after COVID-19 vaccination is rare and occurred in approximately 2 to 5 people per million vaccinated in the United States based on events reported to VAERS. This kind of allergic reaction almost always occurs within 30 minutes after vaccination.”

The reported adverse events include hearing loss . . .

There have been a handful of case reports of COVID-19 patients having such hearing loss, including a report in BMJ. But as more COVID-19 vaccines become available, there are a small but growing number of reports of vaccinated individuals reporting sudden hearing loss — 14 reports among nearly 31,000 entries (or 0.05%) in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

A Phase 1 clinical trial for Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine included a 21-year-old who experienced sudden hearing loss 34 days after vaccination. Neither the investigator nor Johnson & Johnson concluded that the event was linked to the vaccine.

But something to keep in mind about these reports of those who died after taking the vaccines are their age and pre-vaccine health condition:

One such case, according to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), involved an 86-year-old who died after receiving his second dose of Pfizer. According to CDC records, the individual also had a long history of lung and heart issues, but the doctor reported the correlation anyway “out of abundance of caution.”

Other cases involved stroke, heart attacks; one couldn’t stop using the bathroom and ultimately died there after receiving the vaccine.

If you’re vaccinating lots of people who are elderly or who have serious health conditions, some of them are going to die of old age or those health conditions after vaccination. People who are at high risk of stroke or heart attack are still at high risk of stroke or heart attack after getting vaccinated. These vaccines helps fight off COVID-19, not death in all its forms.

But it is worth noting that while cases of younger, seemingly healthy people developing serious health complications and even dying after getting the vaccines are rare, but not impossible:

The 39-year-old woman, otherwise healthy, lived in West Point with her 9-year-old daughter Emilia, her mom and her stepdad, Hawley. She sought out the vaccination because she was a medical worker, a surgical technician for area plastic surgeons.

Kurill started exhibiting some of the common side effects of the Moderna vaccine soon after getting her second and final booster shot — fever, headache, nausea, chills. The side effects lingered on then worsened, so three days later, Kurill went to the Davis Hospital and Medical Center emergency room in Layton. Doctors there determined she needed more specialized care and she was evacuated via helicopter to Intermountain Medical Center in Murray. She died the next day, Feb. 5.

“They said her liver had basically shut down,” Hawley said.

An autopsy is being carried out, Hawley said, which he hopes helps clarify the situation.

Perhaps this fairly young woman had some sort of not-yet-diagnosed health issue. Or perhaps, in extremely rare cases, the vaccines can trigger some sort of severe reaction within the vaccinated body that presents a life-threatening risk.

More than 20 European countries have stopped using the AstraZeneca vaccine this week, after about a dozen cases of vaccinated individuals suffering from — and in some cases dying from — widespread blood clots, low platelet counts, and internal bleeding. This detailed article in Science quotes a lot of doctors and medical researchers and offers an intriguing theory about what could be happening in these cases:

Madsen believes the unusual symptoms may be the result of “a very strong immunological reaction.” Acute infections can trigger clotting and bleeding, sometimes culminating in DIC, Wendtner notes. But abnormal clotting is also a feature of COVID-19. It’s possible, Wendtner says, that the unusual cases had a COVID-19 infection before they got vaccinated; many were health care workers and teachers who may have been exposed at work. Coming on top of the infection, the vaccine might somehow have triggered an overreaction by the immune system, sparking the clotting syndrome. Ganser thinks patients suffering from CVT may be the tip of the iceberg and that more people may suffer similar, but milder, symptoms.

Back in February, the New York Times reported on a few dozen vaccinated individuals showing signs of a “severe case of immune thrombocytopenia — a lack of platelets, a blood component essential for clotting.

It is not known whether this blood disorder is related to the Covid vaccines. More than 31 million people in the United States have received at least one dose, and 36 similar cases had been reported to the government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, VAERS, by the end of January. The cases involved either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, the only two authorized so far for emergency use in the United States.

But the reporting system shows only problems described by health care providers or patients after vaccination and does not indicate whether the shots actually caused the problems.

Now, you can do math. Thirty-six cases out of 31 million vaccinated people comes out to one in 861,111. Those CDC figures above about the risk of anaphylaxis suggest your odds of experiencing it after getting a COVID-19 vaccine ranges from one in 200,000 to one in 500,000. Earlier in the week, I noted the CDC calculates your chances of being struck by lightning as one in 500,000. (A reader pointed out that the risk varies a great deal from individual to individual, depending upon how often they come in contact with thunderstorms.) Your odds of being dealt a royal flush on the opening hand in a poker game are one in 649,739. Your odds of dying from flesh-eating bacteria are roughly 1 million to one.

To me, it’s a no-brainer. You’ve got a much higher risk of serious health problems or death from COVID-19 than you do from the vaccines. It’s not even close:

Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, noted in a statement that even if the risk of CVT is raised by the vaccine to five or more cases per million people vaccinated, the COVID-19 infection fatality rate for men in their mid-40s is 0.1%, or 1000 deaths per million infected.

But if you’ve got worries about the vaccines, or you’ve had serious adverse reactions to a shot before, it’s probably worth talking to your doctor. While there are not yet allergy tests designed to specifically test for a reaction to a vaccine, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology notes that “the most common cause of adverse allergic immunologic events is likely gelatin, although egg allergy might be a concern with yellow fever, measles/mumps/rubella, varicella or live zoster vaccine. Risk with latex allergy is extremely low to nonexistent as the amount of latex in syringes and multidose vials is very low.”

ADDENDUM: Senator Elizabeth Warren: “The filibuster has deep roots in racism, and it should not be permitted to serve that function, or to create or to create a veto for the minority. In a democracy, it’s majority rules.”

But when Elizabeth Warren was in the Senate minority, she participated in filibusters plenty of times and never uttered any objection to its alleged “deep roots in racism” or the inherent authority of the majority. Back in 2017, when Neil Gorsuch was nominated to the Supreme Court, Warren said, “I want to make it completely clear — no ambiguity — I will filibuster.”

Back then, Warren insisted the filibuster was just a tool for standing up to bullies.

“Should Mitch McConnell be able to bully Democrats into going along with a judge who is not a consensus nominee? No,” she said. “They’re threatening. They’re bullying and the only thing we can do is stand up.”

In short, Warren believes the filibuster is good and fair when she uses it, but bad and unfair when Republicans use it.

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