It was the end of the workday on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. I was wrapping up a Zoom call when my phone started to vibrate with calls, text messages and emails. Gabriele Marcotti, an ESPN journalist, was trying to reach me from Qatar, where he was covering the World Cup alongside my husband, Grant Wahl.
Gabriele’s an old friend. He was at our wedding over 20 years ago. Now, he told me on the phone, colleagues were saying that Grant had collapsed in the stadium press box toward the end of the Argentina-Netherlands match. He had heard that bystanders had started CPR on Grant. I gasped, barely forming the words to ask, “Did he have a pulse?” Gabriele didn’t know. Soon, Grant was transported by ambulance to Hamad General Hospital. It wasn’t until over an hour later that I tracked down a doctor in the emergency department for an update. My Grant had died.
As soon as the news became public, rumors and disinformation began to spread. Amid seemingly inexplicable tragedy, there’s an understandable reflex to grasp onto narratives that could explain how something so shocking could occur. Even those of us who love Grant did so in our grief. But soon strangers began blaming Grant’s death on Covid-19 vaccines, a playbook I know all too well and a move I refuse to let stand.
I knew that disinformation purveyors would blame Grant’s death on Covid vaccines, and I knew what tactics they would use to do so. I also knew that debunking what these people believe head-on in public risks giving them the attention they crave and invites further trolling. But this situation was different from the many others I’d dealt with as an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist or while serving on the Biden-Harris transition Covid Advisory Board. This was my Grant, and I needed to know what had happened to him. And I knew I had to share that information publicly: Pairing facts with empathy is the best way to disempower trolls.
So, in the days following Grant’s death, I swallowed my grief. I worked to have Grant flown home for an autopsy. It was a herculean task to overcome the various bureaucratic and logistical barriers, and I needed a lot of help. His autopsy was performed at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, which is staffed by some of the world’s top pathologists and forensic scientists. I wanted his autopsy results to be unimpeachable.
I got the preliminary results on Dec. 13. Grant’s aorta, the large blood vessel carrying blood from his heart, had ruptured. Once I got the news, my every instinct was to protect the boy I’d met as a college junior. I had to end the rumors and refocus attention on Grant’s legacy. I swallowed my grief even deeper. I put out a written statement the following day. I agreed to interviews with The New York Times, CBS, NPR and “The Peter King Podcast.”
I didn’t respond to disinformation or harassment on Substack or on social media. I didn’t reply to the email that read: “Now you understand that you killed your poor husband. Karma is a bitch.” I’ve received these kinds of messages before, including rape and death threats, over the course of the pandemic, but receiving them about Grant was vile, especially as waves of anguish threatened to consume me.
But when these disinformation opportunists recently used the same playbook to blame Damar Hamlin’s in-game cardiac arrest on Covid vaccines, the dam broke. I knew I had to write this essay.
The vaccine disinformation playbook includes the use of fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry-picked data and conspiracy theories. Not a single qualified medical or public health expert has supported the claim that my husband died from Covid vaccination. Logical fallacies, also known as cognitive biases, are mental shortcuts we use to simplify information, but which also leave us vulnerable to errors in judgment. The most common logical fallacy is to say that because A happened before B, A must have caused B. Given that over 80 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, chances are that most Americans who die today will have been vaccinated, but that doesn’t mean they died from their vaccinations. To be clear, there is no increased risk of death from non-Covid causes after Covid vaccination.
Other logical fallacies include non sequiturs, posing the question while assuming the answer and failing to consider alternative hypotheses. Vaccine disinformationists have incorrectly linked myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle — which is far more likely to be caused by Covid infection than by Covid vaccination — to my husband’s aortic aneurysm. Yes, the aorta and the heart are in the same vicinity, but the relevance stops there. It does not logically follow that Covid vaccination was a risk factor for his condition. Others have called for investigations into his death as if information is being suppressed. I, too, wanted to know what happened to my Grant. Did I miss something? Was there something that could have been done to prevent this? This is why I requested an autopsy.
Vaccine disinformationists have cherry-picked data to support their claims, failing to note that genetic connective tissue disorders are important risk factors for ascending aortic aneurysms (and in my husband’s case the most likely risk factor, as early genetic test results suggest).
When disinformation profiteers leverage tragedies like Grant’s and Mr. Hamlin’s for their personal gain, they re-traumatize families, compromising our ability to interpret information and distinguish truth from lies and putting all of us at risk. The results of allowing this to continue will be disastrous. Merchants of disinformation argue that vaccines killed my husband, but they’re also at least in part responsible for the return of polio to the United States and the fact that so many children in Ohio are suffering from measles right now. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that while most of the public still supports routine childhood vaccinations, significantly fewer people support requirements that children be vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella than did just two years ago. In December, Congress repealed a Covid vaccine mandate for troops even though doing so threatens military readiness and puts our nation’s security at risk.
I believe in karma. Even if it’s used against me as a threat. I believe that what we put out into the world shapes our experience of it. Karma is what brought Grant into my life. Karma is what sustained our marriage through trials, adversities and endless work pressures that demanded every piece of us. Karma is why Grant touched so many people’s lives. I was reminded of this at his memorial service in New York City, which was attended by several hundred people in person and many more on Zoom. Karma resulted in tributes in numerous publications, on social media and in private messages.
Grant will be remembered for his kindness, openness and generosity. His legacy is his commitment to seeking truth through reporting, supporting human rights and fighting for equality. I will continue to honor Grant by living by our shared values. I’m channeling my grief into something productive: protecting the public’s health against those who would profit from the suffering of others.
Céline Gounder, an infectious-disease physician and epidemiologist, is a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation and the editor at large of Kaiser Health News. She is also the host of the podcast “Epidemic.”
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