Misinformation Wednesday

Online trolls and opportunists have promoted the idea that NFL player Damar Hamlin collapsed at a Buffalo Bills game because of COVID vaccinations. In fact, Hamlin's doctors don't know exactly what happened.

Misinformation Wednesday
Photo by Marija Zaric on Unsplash

Are you ready for some football?

This is one of the regular newsletter columns written in my role as the Wisconsin Council of Churches Community Health Program Manager. You can see the original piece here and other examples at the WCC website.

Back at the start of this newsletter, I used to do what I called "Misinformation Monday." I'd pick one bit of untruth or another to dispel each week, often with the aid of an infographic. I'm not sure we're ready to get back to that, but every so often something comes up that's worth addressing. And so it is this week.

Before we get to that, though, I need to stamp out a little misinformation of my own, or at least correct an error.

Last week I said that the newest Omicron variant XBB.1.5 "appears to be better at getting around immune defenses." That is not true. According to virologists, it's because XBB.1.5 is "better at binding to the cell and replicating." In other words, it spreads not through finesse, but with sheer numbers. Throw enough angry birds at a piggy, and he's sure to fall over sooner or later.

With that out of the way, let's talk about our first piece of misinformation. Some people argue that COVID vaccines have caused the virus to mutate faster as it seeks to evade our bodies' defenses. That's not the case, according to the people who study viruses.

It's particularly not the case for XBB.1.5, which formed when two earlier variants traded components. That happened, as one expert puts it, "because people were infected by multiple viruses at the same time."

It's important to make it clear that vaccines don't cause more severe variants (see the truth sandwich there?). That's because of some particularly nasty—and again, untrue—rumors floating around.

Online trolls and opportunists have promoted the idea that NFL player Damar Hamlin collapsed at a Buffalo Bills game because of COVID vaccinations. In fact, Hamlin's doctors don't know exactly what happened. But some experts argue that it's consistent with "a rare, serious medical condition that occurs when a person is hit in the chest and that impact triggers a dramatic change in the rhythm of their heart."

There is no evidence that COVID vaccines cause sudden cardiac arrest. mRNA vaccines have been linked to very low levels of myocarditis, or heart inflammation. But the risk of myocarditis from a COVID infection is much higher, according to extensive research.

These charges fit a long-running pattern of rumors. Some connect COVID vaccines to a supposed rise in Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome in athletes. There's no scientific documentation for such an increase. But there is plenty of evidence that COVID and SADS are unrelated. The rumors also fit a broader pattern of COVID vaccine skepticism. You can see that pattern in action in this graphic posted on the social media site Reddit. (Warning: it's complete garbage.)

I hope it's obvious why this sort of misinformation is dangerous. It leads people to fear and mistrust safe and effective vaccines. But there are other costs. Imagine how painful it must be for Damar Hamlin's family, or the family of Grant Wahl, a sports journalist who collapsed and died of an aortic aneurysm while covering the World Cup in Qatar, to see a loved one used to promote lies, often for no better reason than entertainment.

We owe it to those families to do our part to stop the spread of misinformation. We owe it to our families, and ourselves, to stay informed.


  • Vaccines do not cause death from sudden cardiac arrest.
  • Variants like XBB.1.5 arise because of natural mutations. Viruses, like everything else, evolve all the time. Influenza, for example, often produces new variants, which is why we have flu shots every year.
  • There are lots of COVID variants tracked by scientists, but only classify some of them as "variants of concern." They watch those carefully to see if they spread more easily or cause more serious illness.
  • As long as COVID is around, it will produce new variants. The best and easiest way to protect yourself against them is to get vaccinated and boosted. Make sure that you're up to date with the bivalent boosters. Those are the most recent shots available and the best at protecting against current variants. (If you're not sure, ask your doctor or medical provider.)
  • Even if a variant like XBB.1.5 is easily transmitted, vaccines and boosters make it less likely that you'll get sick. And they make it much less likely that you'll be hospitalized or die from an infection. The more people who are vaccinated around the world, the less likely it is that COVID will produce new variations on the same old theme.

Remember all of this the next time someone spouts off on Facebook or at church. And if you wouldn't mind, spread it around a little yourself. It's said that "a lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on." But then, that lie never met an NFL safety or a bunch of church mice tittering away at the coffee hour. We can make the world a truer place.