On May 5, Fox News and Tucker Carlson added another entry to their laundry list of reckless and incendiary claims regarding COVID-19: “Official government data” indicates dozens of people a day are dying after receiving COVID-19 vaccinations.
Carlson inaccurately asserted that thousands of people have died after receiving the COVID-19 vaccination, claiming that “between late December of 2020 and last month, a total of 3,362 people apparently died after getting the COVID vaccine in the United States” and that even though the data was “not quite up to date,” we “can assume that another 360 people at that rate have died in the 12 days since. You put it all together, and that is a total of 3,722 deaths. That’s almost 4,000 people who died after getting the COVID vaccines. The actual number is almost certainly higher than that, perhaps vastly higher than that.”
His monologue continued and included claims from an unnamed physician that we’re currently living through the “single deadliest mass vaccination event in modern history”:
In just the first four months of this year, the U.S. government has recorded more deaths after COVID vaccinations than from all other vaccines administered in the United States between mid-1997 and the end of 2013. That is a period of 15 and a half years. Again, more people, according to VAERS, have died after getting the shot in four months during a single vaccination campaign than from all other vaccines combined over more than a decade and a half. Chart that out. It's a stunning picture. Now, the debate is over what it means. Again, there is a lot of criticism of the reporting system. Some people say, well, it’s just a coincidence if someone gets a shot and then dies, possibly from other causes. No one really knows, is the truth. We spoke to one physician today who actively treats COVID patients. He described what we are seeing now as the single deadliest mass vaccination event in modern history. Whatever is causing it, it is happening as we speak.
The sensational claims Carlson is parroting regarding a mass of unaddressed potentially COVID-19 vaccine-related deaths have been circulating online and on social media for months, and they are based on deeply unreliable data from the U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). VAERS allows the public open access to report incidents of adverse reactions to vaccinations. As PolitiFact explained:
It’s designed so that anyone — parents, patients and health care professionals — can freely report any health effects that occur after a vaccination, according to the CDC, whether or not those effects are believed to be caused by the vaccine. The reports are not verified before they’re entered into the database. But anyone with a computer can search the data, download it, sort through the numbers and interpret them as they wish.
That makes VAERS fertile ground for vaccine misinformation that spreads widely on social media and elsewhere. Even though VAERS warns its users that reports should not be used on their own to determine whether a vaccine caused or contributed to a particular illness, many who tap into the system do that anyway, citing these government statistics to justify broader conclusions about what they consider the dangers of vaccines.
What Carlson brushed off as “criticism of the reporting system” actually relates to fundamental methodological decisions that are key to understanding what VAERS data actually measures, and they completely undercut Carlson’s argument.
As radiologist Pradheep J. Shanker (incidentally, a contributor to the right-wing National Review) explained in a lengthy tweet thread, VAERS is intended to serve as a “catch all” system that allows for minor complications to be identified while also dealing with a significant amount of statistical “noise.” VAERS’ own data guide states that “a report to VAERS,” including reports of death, “generally does not prove that the identified vaccine(s) caused the adverse event described. It only confirms that the reported event occurred sometime after vaccine was given. No proof that the event was caused by the vaccine is required in order for VAERS to accept the report.”
A longer disclaimer on the VAERS website explicitly states that the data relies on self-reporting and should not be regarded as complete or authoritative: “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.”
VAERS requires people interested in exploring the dataset to acknowledge two separate disclaimers explaining the limitations of the data. When a person downloads VAERS data, they receive yet another disclaimer, stating that “the inclusion of events in VAERS data does not infer causality.”
In this instance, either Fox News, Carlson, and his team failed to even attempt to verify the numbers they were presenting viewers, or they knew of the VAERS methodological shortcomings, which users are required to acknowledge twice, and chose to brush them off in favor of a monologue designed to terrify their audience. And despite these clear limitations, Carlson repeated arguments, made by vaccine skeptic Toby Rogers no less, that the perceived under-reporting of adverse vaccine reactions to VAERS actually means that we have no way of knowing the true number of incidents, and that they’re likely much higher. “Nobody [knows] and we are not going to speculate about it on the show,” Carlson declared.
But that data does exist. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention oversees VAERS, it also runs the CDC’s Vaccine Safety Datalink, which documents reports of adverse vaccine reactions through health care professionals and requires more rigorous standards of documentation and reporting. Despite Carlson’s claims that “you are not allowed to” mention the nearly 4,000 deaths reported to VAERS for fear of being “pulled off the internet” if you do, the CDC itself addresses the reports on its website.
The CDC’s comments about reports sent to VAERS were notably absent from Fox’s broadcast. Carlson’s assertion that the government won’t “acknowledge” or investigate this avalanche of mass death is even more starkly contradicted by the recent temporary removal of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from circulation while the CDC investigated a half-dozen reports of blood clots in recipients.
What’s clear is that Carlson has become the network’s nexus of vaccine skepticism, spending months denouncing the effort to get the public vaccinated and insinuating that the drugs may not be safe or effective and that scientists who say otherwise are lying.
Fox News has abandoned all pretext of being a news and information channel in favor of unrestrained reactionary politics with Carlson as the centerpiece. Nearly half of Republicans now say they don’t want a COVID-19 vaccine, and there is no doubt that Carlson and Fox played a part in creating that number. Advertisers and cable companies supporting Fox are propping up the nation's most prominent vaccine skeptic -- and they bear just as much responsibility for the consequences as the Murdochs and Carlson’s enablers at Fox.
Update (5/6/21 10 p.m. EDT): On his show the following evening, Carlson doubled down on his inaccurate segment, without engaging with any of the myriad criticisms that has been aimed at him in the past 24 hours.
Carlson repeated his claim that “more deaths have been connected to the new COVID vaccines over the past four months and to all previous vaccines combined.” Carlson again blatantly misinterpreted VAERS data, instead blaming the entire episode on the Biden administration (even as people across the political spectrum try to correct his lies), and finally sarcastically declaring that “anyone who asks” about the potential harms of the vaccine “is immoral.”
Carlson blamed “partisans” for widespread criticism of his remarks, backlash comes from people across the political spectrum as well as fact-checkers. Prominent conservative figures, including Carlson's own colleagues, criticized the segment, notably off the air.
Dr. Nicole Saphier, Fox News medical contributor:
Jonah Goldberg, Fox News contributor: