MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – A federal database gathering reports of COVID-19 vaccine side effects shows almost 400 instances in Alabama, including 23 people who died shortly after getting the shots.
Scary statistics like that have fueled chatter on social media about the dangers of the drug. But public health experts caution against reading too much into these reports to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS.
“The idea that they’re in VAERS doesn’t mean in any way that they’re associated with the vaccine,” said Scott Chavers, head of the Mobile County Health Department’s COVID-19 response.
That database continues to grow as more people get the shots. Nearly a quarter of eligible Alabamians now are fully vaccinated.
Nationwide, there are almost 47,000 reports have been logged in the VARES database.
Chavers said all of the VAERS data are self-reported and have not been verified. He said it is useful for spotting potential patterns. If a specific adverse health condition starts showing up at greater rates than what would be predicted for the general population, he said, health authorities will investigate a possible link to the vaccine.
This is what prompted European regulations to temporarily halt distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the wake of reports of blood clots. On Friday, the European Union’s health agency announced it was investigating potential similar clotting issues associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
But Chavers said none of the deaths in Alabama have been shown to be caused by any of the vaccines currently in use for COVID-19.
The deaths reported in Alabama are alarming without context. One woman, for instance, died after being rushed to the emergency room with shallow breathing the morning after getting a shot. She died in the intensive care unit.
Another patient died in his sleep two days after getting the vaccine.
In another case, a man found his wife slumped in a chair several hours after getting shot. She died in the hospital the following day.
Most who died were elderly
All three people were 84 or older, though. If fact, of the 22 deaths, all but one were older than 65. More than half were in their 80s or 90s.
Chavers said it simply is not uncommon for people that age to die.
“As you vaccinate people at high risk – so those are in the older age brackets, and those that have these underlying conditions – it’s not unexpected, that you’re going to have some death events in these populations,” he said.
Chavers pointed to a report in the Netherlands of 23 deaths among people who had been vaccinated in the initial wave. More than half were nursing home residents older than 80.
“There were, essentially, 20 deaths reported among people who had been vaccinated,” he said. “Well, what does that mean? Well, then you look at the number of deaths per week in those facilities, and it’s 400 per week. So, it's not unexpected based on probability calculations that you would get these numbers of fatal events among people that were vaccinated.”
Still, the proximity of health crises to vaccinations has some people questioning whether it is just a coincidence. Susan McCollom, a Virginia resident whose father lives in Foley, said her dad went downhill a few days after getting his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in February.
Prior to that, McCollom said, her father showed no adverse health and was an active 89-year-old.
“This happened overnight,” she said. “This was like a light switch.”
McCollom said her father’s ordeal began a lump on his neck, followed by weakness. When he was so weak that he could barely walk, his wife took him to the hospital. But McCollom doctors concluded it to a vaccine side effect.
McCollom said her father kept getting worse. It wasn’t until six weeks later, after his third trip to the hospital, that doctors spotted the culprit – lymphoma, a form of cancer.
“I just still think that this is very, very odd that this popped up, you know, four days post-vaccine in somebody that was completely healthy,” she said. “There was nothing, you know, no – he was having zero symptoms prior to that.”
McCollom said she filled out a form on Pfizer’s website for people to report adverse effects. She said she is a nurse and has gotten the Pfizer vaccine, herself. She said she remains pro-vaccine. But she added that she is convinced the timing of her father’s symptoms at the very least resulted in a slower diagnosis.
“A hundred percent, it delayed the diagnosis because like I said, you know, three trips to the emergency room,” she said. “And, you know, like I said, this is how long it took, because they kept contributing into the COVID vaccine.”
The most common side effects associated with the vaccine have been nuisances like fever, headache, aches and chills. Health care experts report they are more common after the second dose and more common for younger people and women. Side effects also more common for people who recently had COVID-19, particularly after the first shot.
Stephanie Formo, who was visiting Mobile on Friday from her home in Wisconsin, said her side effects were mild.
“The second shot, about 24 hours afterwards, I just felt like I had a mild flu, and then I woke up the next morning and was fine again,” she said.
Mobile resident Terell Taylor is due for his second dose of Moderna next week. He said he had a reaction to the first dose, which he was ready for because he had COVID-19 within the last 60 days.
“Just the site where I got the shot at was a bit sore,” he said. “And I felt, like, a fever the second night. But that was about it, and a slight headache, but that’s all. … I took some Tylenol, got some rest, and it was fine.”
Taylor said he initially hesitated over whether to get vaccinated.
“But after I got COVID and experienced how bad it was, I decided I was going to gonna go ahead and get the shot,” he said. “
Taylor said side effects are nothing compared to the week of misery that the virus dealt him.
It was pretty rough,” he said. “I want to say the third or fourth night, I felt like I was reaching the end.”