The data don’t dispute that Covid vaccines are safe and effective. Photographer: Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images.
By Justin Fox
For most people, the on-field cardiac arrest of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin during the Jan. 2 Monday Night Football game was a frightening potential tragedy followed by what is now looking like a happy ending. A vocal minority, though, seized on it as purported evidence of the terrible toll mRNA Covid-19 vaccines have exacted on otherwise healthy young Americans.
The medical establishment and the mainstream media have generally dismissed such concerns out of hand. But whenever I hear them, I ask myself, “I wonder if there’s any evidence of that in the mortality data?”
US mortality statistics, derived from death certificates filled out by physicians and medical examiners and collected from state and local public-health agencies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, are available online to anyone with a computer. They used to be updated only annually, but during the pandemic, the CDC began releasing provisional numbers from as recently as the previous month. It takes a little while to learn how to extract the numbers you want, but I’m continually amazed by how little use is made of these readily available statistics in public discussions and debates around Covid-19, the vaccines and other topics. (A notable exception: University of Central Arkansas economics professor Jeremy Horpendahl, who has already tweeted and blogged about a lot of the statistics I’ll cite in this column.)
What the mortality data show is that, first of all, something has been killing American young people in sharply rising numbers lately. The 2021 mortality rate for those 15 to 34 was the highest since since 1973, and for those 25 to 34, it was the highest since 1950.
Dangerous Times for Young Americans
Deaths per 100K population, ages 15 through 34
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
That something, it should be clear from the chart, is mostly external causes such as accidents (including accidental drug overdoses), suicides and homicides. Still, there has been an increase in deaths from internal causes, too. Here’s the CDC’s list of the leading causes of death in 2021 for those 15 to 34.
From here on in I’m using raw death numbers instead of mortality rates because US annual population statistics for the past few years are a bit of a muddle. There’s always a discontinuity in annual population estimates between the year preceding a decennial Census and the Census year, and the one between 2019 and 2020 has provided official population estimates that show an increase in the 15-to-34 population during that period when all other indications are that it shrank a bit.
Here is what those deaths for internal causes look like on a monthly basis through May 2022.
The increase seems to have started in late 2019, before Covid is thought to have arrived in the US. It was initially driven mostly by an increase in deaths from respiratory diseases, so maybe Covid got here earlier than thought; maybe it was the flu; maybe it was something else. It definitely wasn’t Covid vaccines because they didn’t exist yet. Deaths from internal causes other than Covid have remained elevated since, rising when Covid deaths did and falling back somewhat (but not to pre-2020 levels) when Covid waves subsided.
Covid vaccines became available to all Americans 16 and older in March and April 2021, with the exact date depending on the state, and were administered at varying speeds after that. The percentage of US 25-to-49-year-olds with at least one vaccine dose passed 50% on May 11, according to the CDC, with 18-to-24-year-olds hitting that threshold July 1 and 12-to-17-year-olds on Aug. 18. When the CDC stopped updating these statistics in October 2022, the percentages were, respectively, 84%, 80.5% and 71.1%.
The vaccine rollout for 15-to-34-year olds was thus concentrated in the summer of 2021, and the age group’s non-Covid deaths from internal causes definitely rose at the time. But this increase coincided with the age group’s biggest wave of Covid deaths, and another wave of Covid and deaths from non-Covid internal causes followed in December 2021 and January 2022 as the omicron variant swept through the country. Deaths from both Covid and other internal causes declined last spring, with May’s total the lowest since February 2020.
Covid deaths appear to have stayed low for the 15-to-34 age group for the rest of 2022. With other internal causes, it’s harder to tell, because the numbers include a grab-bag category called “ill-defined and unknown causes of mortality” that shrinks over time as medical examiners assign causes of death but is currently filled with pretty big numbers from June 2022 onward. Those causes seem to be mostly external (determining whether a death is caused by accident, suicide or homicide can take a while), so including them exaggerates the internal causes total, but I worry that excluding them would understate it, which is why the above chart ends in May.
This is less of an issue for specific internal causes of death, so the next chart runs through July. It’s of the collection of ailments that the CDC groups together as “diseases of heart,” which are the most relevant to questions of mRNA vaccine safety. Medical researchers have established in study after study that the vaccines appear to increase incidence of myocarditis (swelling of the heart) and pericarditis (swelling of the tissue around the heart), especially among the young, and young men in particular. This research has generally found the effects to be temporary and mild, but given that Covid cases tend to be temporary and mild for young people, too, there are varying opinions among medical experts and public health authorities around the world as to whether and how many times teenagers and young adults should be vaccinated.
But are they dying from the vaccine? No, it doesn’t look like it.
This chart shows rolling 12-month numbers because you can barely see the change in the (noisy) monthly numbers. In this view there’s a clear increase in heart-disease deaths that started in mid-2020, plateaued in mid-2021 and seems to have faded somewhat last year. The percentage increase was somewhat bigger for men than for women. For the sake of completeness, I also looked at deaths in which heart disease was listed as a contributing cause (doctors and medical examiners can list up to 20 such causes on death certificates), which showed a similar pattern to the above chart as long as one excluded deaths for which Covid is listed as the primary cause, of which there were — as shown in the first chart — big spikes in summer 2021 and winter 2021-2022.
Covid itself has been found to cause myocarditis, pericarditis and other heart troubles at a higher rate than the vaccines do, and given that the initial increase in heart-disease deaths coincided with the arrival of Covid, the simplest explanation is that Covid is chiefly to blame. There certainly was no big increase in heart-disease deaths after the vaccines arrived: in the 12 months starting in July 2021, there were 106 fewer heart-disease deaths among 15-to-34-year-olds than in the previous 12. This is not incompatible with the vaccines directly causing some deadly heart ailments even as they prevented Covid-related ones. But it doesn’t seem as if it could have been a lot.
Getting much more specific than that requires knowing who was vaccinated and who was not, and that’s not recorded in the CDC mortality data. The statistics do include deaths that doctors or medical examiners attributed directly to vaccines. The number since 2020 with an underlying cause of death listed as “viral vaccines,” “other specified vaccines and biological substances” and “vaccine or biological substance, unspecified” — which seem to be the three categories that Covid vaccines might fall into — is 85, with all but six of those of people 35 and older. Another 260 death certificates list these as a contributing cause, with all but 11 of those among people 35 or older.
The CDC and US Food and Drug Administration also maintain a Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System to which anyone — doctors, nurses, patients, family members, friends, random vaccine skeptics — can report side effects or deaths after vaccinations and is intended to function as an early warning signal rather than a reliable accounting. The number of deaths following Covid vaccines recorded in the system currently stands at a whopping 16,315. In most cases, though, the symptoms leading to death are reported to have developed well after vaccination (more than 120 days for 5,454 of them), so I would guess that the deaths recorded in the system are mainly just normal mortality. Nearly 8,000 Americans died on the average day before Covid arrived, more than two-thirds of the US population has received Covid vaccines, and vaccination rates are highest among the elderly, who are much more likely to die than young people. If the vaccines had neither a positive nor negative effect, we should expect 5,000 or 6,000 vaccinated Americans to perish every day just in the normal course of events.
Vaccine safety studies try to control for this normal course of events. During the Covid pandemic, some of the most comprehensive and clearly reported have been those of Germany’s vaccine and biomedicine regulator, the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut (named for its founder, the winner of the 1908 Nobel prize in medicine, not the “Population Bomb” guy). In its final extended report on Covid vaccines, from September, the institute concluded that while shortness of breath, myocarditis and irregular heartbeats occurred more frequently among those recently receiving the mRNA vaccines from BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna than in the population at large, significant adverse events such as heart attacks, blood clots in the lungs and brain and a blood disorder that causes bleeding were much less common among the recently vaccinated than the control population. The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, both based on modified versions of different viruses, were linked to higher than normal rates of dangerous blood clots and bleeding disorders, but all four vaccines had a much lower incidence of death in the 30 days after vaccination than the rate for the population at large.
That’s not going to convince a lot of anti-vaxxers. But I at least find such detailed reports, along with the unfiltered mortality data, more reassuring than just hearing an expert tell me the vaccines are safe.