VAERS: The angel is in the details

In the past year, I’ve learned to shut up and accept people’s refusal to be vaccinated – unless you’re my patient, then we still need to discuss it.

I respect:

“I don’t trust government (or health) bureaucrats.”

“Got COVID already.”

“I’m afraid of needles.”

“I’d like to wait a little longer to make sure.”

“COVID is like the flu.” (Umm, no.)

But there’s one alarming piece of misinformation that I’ve heard again and again – long before COVID-19 – that I must clarify:

“COVID-19 vaccines are linked to thousands of deaths. It’s reported on VAERS, a government site. And everybody knows vaccine reactions are grossly unreported.”

This statement is mostly true, but used out of context. To be exact, the CDC reports, as of Nov. 29, 2021, “VAERS received 10,128 reports of death (0.0022%) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine.”

But CDC also reports only the J&J vaccine has “caused or directly contributed to 6 confirmed deaths.”  

So, which version of CDC facts can you believe – 10,000 deaths or 6?

VAERS stands for Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. Started in 1990, comanaged by the CDC and FDA, it tracks vaccine side effects.

While VAERS tends to underreport minor reactions – such as fever, muscle pain and fatigue – it tends to overreport major reactions – such as hospitalization, serious disease and death. Therefore, it’s a smart way to quickly find rare reactions to vaccines. Since its inception, one vaccine was pulled off the market within months of its release due to a rare reaction.

The most important thing to understand about VAERS: It’s an open-reporting system, that is, everybody (that’s you, me) is encouraged to report vaccine reactions. When bad things show up on VAERS, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s caused by the vaccines. VAERS vacuums up data; CDC and others sift this data.

For example, let’s say I withdraw a thousand dollars from a bank. I walk down the street; I get robbed. Well, it’s possible my withdrawal somehow led to the robbery.

Let’s say I withdraw the money; I walk across the street on a red light. I get hit by an SUV whose driver is texting. My withdrawal and getting hit by a car are likely a coincidence.

Both outcomes can be reported in VAERS. To differentiate between cause-and-effect and coincidence, the CDC and other experts review the medical records carefully and compare with other public health data. VAERS is a piece of, but not the whole puzzle.

I’ve never seen another public health site stirring as much confusion and fear as VAERS. You ask: Why do the experts confuse us by hanging raw data out like dirty laundry? By sharing the data publicly, our health agencies lead in data transparency and scientific integrity. The more we understand, the less we fear. I know, it’s ironic.  

Vaccination is the core of what I do: preventative care. It’s one of the safest (if not the safest) medical interventions. Tell me you don’t want get vaccinated because of “My body, my freedom” or “I trust my own immune system” or “It’s none of your damn business” – but please don’t avoid it out of undue fear.

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Volume 13, Issue 23, Posted 10:34 AM, 12.07.2021