Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

Cruel new twist pushes vaccine lies

‘Died suddenly’ posts pile on the pain felt by grieving families

- By Ali Swenson and Angelo Fichera

Results from 6-year-old Anastasia Weaver’s autopsy may take weeks. But online anti-vaccine activists needed only hours after her funeral last week to falsely blame the COVID-19 vaccine.

A prolific Twitter account posted Anastasia’s name and smiling dance portrait in a tweet with a syringe emoji. A Facebook user messaged her mother, Jessica Day-Weaver, to call her a “murderer” for having her child vaccinated.

In reality, the Ohio kindergart­ner had experience­d lifelong health problems since her premature birth, including epilepsy, asthma and frequent hospitaliz­ations with respirator­y viruses.

“The doctors haven’t given us any informatio­n other than it was due to all of her chronic conditions . ... There was never a thought that it could be from the vaccine,” Day-Weaver said.

But those facts didn’t matter online, where Anastasia was swiftly added to a growing list of hundreds of children, teens, athletes and celebritie­s whose unexpected deaths and injuries have been incorrectl­y blamed on COVID-19 shots. Using the hashtag #diedsudden­ly, online conspiracy theorists have flooded social media with news reports, obituaries and GoFundMe pages in recent months, leaving grieving families to wrestle with the lies.

There’s the Brazilian television host who collapsed live on air because of a congenital heart problem. The unvaccinat­ed bull rider who died from a rare disease. The actor who died from bacterial infection complicati­ons.

The use of “died suddenly” — or a misspelled version of it — has surged more than 740% in tweets about vaccines over the past two months compared with the two previous months, the media intelligen­ce firm Zignal Labs found in an analysis.

The phrase’s explosion began with the late November debut of an online “documentar­y” by the same name, giving power to what experts say is a new and damaging shorthand.

“It’s kind of in-group language, kind of a winkwink, nudge-nudge,” said Renee DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observator­y.

The campaign causes harm beyond the internet, epidemiolo­gist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina said.

“The real danger is that it ultimately leads to realworld actions such as not vaccinatin­g,” said Jetelina, who breaks down COVID19 data for her blog, “Your Local Epidemiolo­gist.”

Rigorous study and real-world evidence from hundreds of millions of administer­ed shots prove that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Deaths caused by vaccinatio­n are rare and the risks associated with not getting vaccinated are far higher than the risks of vaccinatio­n.

But that hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists.

The “Died Suddenly” film features a montage of headlines found on Google to falsely suggest they prove that sudden deaths have “never happened like this until now.” The film has amassed more than 20 million views on an alternativ­e video sharing website, and its companion Twitter account posts about more deaths and injuries daily.

A review of more than 100 tweets from the account in December and January found that claims about the cases being vaccine related were largely unsubstant­iated and, in some cases, contradict­ed by public informatio­n. Some of the people featured died of genetic disorders, drug overdoses, flu complicati­ons or suicide. One died in a surfing accident.

The filmmakers did not respond to specific questions from the AP, but issued a statement that referenced a “surge in sudden deaths” and a “PROVEN rate of excess deaths,” without providing data.

The number of overall deaths in the U.S. has been higher than what would be expected since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because of the virus, overdoses and other causes. COVID-19 vaccines prevented nearly 2 million U.S. deaths in just their first year of use.

Some deaths exploited in the film predate the pandemic.

California writer Dolores Cruz published an essay in 2022 about grieving for her son, who died in a car crash in 2017. “Died Suddenly” used a screenshot of the headline in the film, portraying his death as vaccine related.

“Without my permission, someone has taken his story to show one side, and I don’t appreciate that,” Cruz said.

Others featured in the film survived — but have been forced to watch clips of their medical emergencie­s misreprese­nted.

For Brazilian TV presenter Rafael Silva, who collapsed while reporting on air because of a congenital heart abnormalit­y, online disinforma­tion prompted a wave of harassment even before the “Died Suddenly” film used the footage.

“I received messages saying that I should have died to serve as an example for other people who were still thinking about getting the vaccine,” Silva said.

Many of the posts online cite no evidence except that the person who died had been vaccinated at some point, using a common disinforma­tion strategy known as post hoc fallacy, according to Jetelina.

“People assume that one thing caused another merely because the first thing preceded the other,” she said.

Some claims about those who’ve suffered heart issues also weaponize a kernel of truth — that COVID-19 vaccines can cause rare heart inflammati­on issues, myocarditi­s or pericardit­is, especially in young men. Medical experts say these cases are typically mild and the benefits of immunizati­on far outweigh the risks.

The narrative also has leveraged high-profile moments like the collapse of NFL player Damar Hamlin as he suffered cardiac arrest during a game in January after a blow to his chest. But sudden cardiac arrest has long been a prominent cause of death in the U.S. — and medical experts agree the vaccine didn’t cause Hamlin’s injury.

For some families, the misinforma­tion represents a sideshow to understand­ing why their loved ones died and preventing similar tragedies.

Clint Erickson’s son Tyler, 17, died in September near their Florida home. The family knows his heart stopped but still doesn’t know why. Tyler wasn’t vaccinated, but his story appeared in the “Died Suddenly” film.

“It bothers me, him being used in that way,” Erickson said. But “the biggest personal issue I have is trying to find an answer or a closure to what caused this.”

 ?? NICK CAMMETT/AP ?? Jessica Day-Weaver with a photo collage made for her daughter, Anastasia, last week at her Ohio home.
NICK CAMMETT/AP Jessica Day-Weaver with a photo collage made for her daughter, Anastasia, last week at her Ohio home.

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