On Jan. 5, Hank Aaron, the legendary home run hitter, posted on Twitter that he had been vaccinated for the coronavirus at the Morehouse School of Medicine, along with other prominent civil rights figures in Atlanta who were 75 or older and thus part of the group at the highest priority to be inoculated.
“I hope you do the same!” he wrote.
Seventeen days later, Aaron died at the age of 86.
Now, anti-vaccine activists, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent vaccine skeptic, are seizing on his death to suggest — without evidence — that there might be a link.
“That was a pure coincidence,” countered Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the founding dean of the Morehouse medical school and secretary of Health and Human Services in the George H.W. Bush administration, who was vaccinated along with Aaron. He told the Atlanta station WSB-TV, “It is though, if you might say, Hank was in a car before the day he died, and we try and attribute his death to being in a car.”
The Fulton County medical examiner has also said there was nothing to suggest that Aaron had an allergic or anaphylactic reaction related to the vaccine.
Still, Aaron’s death has gotten caught up in a swirl of misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the coronavirus and society’s efforts to fight it. Skepticism about the vaccines has emerged as one of the latest forms of resistance that health officials have confronted throughout the pandemic, as critics have flouted social distancing rules and bristled at covering their faces with masks.
Demonstrators forced the authorities in Los Angeles to close the entrance to Dodger Stadium, one of the largest vaccination sites in the country, for an hour Saturday. About 50 protesters had gathered there, with some holding posters that said “99.96% Survival Rate” and “End the Lockdown.”
Health officials say that so far, with more than 23 million doses administered in the United States, the two vaccines already authorized for use, appear to be quite safe. There have been a few severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, but they are treatable and considered rare, and no deaths have been reported from them. The rates at which anaphylaxis has occurred so far — five cases in every million doses of the vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech, and 2.8 cases per million for the vaccine by Moderna — are in line with what happens with other widely used vaccines.
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At a meeting on Wednesday of expert advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Tom Shimabukuro of the CDC said, “Overall, the safety profiles of the COVID-19 vaccines are reassuring and consistent with that observed in the pre-authorization clinical trials.”
He said the federal government had “implemented the most intense and comprehensive vaccine safety monitoring program in history.”
Even so, anti-vaccine activists have sought to undermine the public’s confidence in the vaccines, using social media to spread unfounded accounts of people dying or suffering drastic side effects.
Polls have shown that public confidence in the vaccines has solidified generally in recent months, but confidence among African Americans is running lower than among other demographic groups, even though the virus has swept through that community with a punishing fury.
That is why the Morehouse School of Medicine assembled pioneering civil rights leaders like Aaron and Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador, to get vaccinated and lead by example.
“They marched to the polls to secure our rights,” Valerie Montgomery Rice, the dean and president of the medical school, said in a statement. “And now, they are rolling up their sleeves to save lives.”
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