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Tucker Carlson’s worst vaccine segment yet

Tucker Carlson speaks onstage during Politicon 2018 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. (Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Politicon)

Tucker Carlson’s sloppy efforts to call into question the safety and efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines hit a new low point Wednesday night.

In a commentary, the Fox News host, who has unleashed a steady stream of innuendo-laden vaccine skepticism in recent months, raised the idea that the vaccines may be linked to an inordinate number of deaths.

He suggested (as he is wont) that he’s simply asking questions that nobody else will. As usual, though, the questions he raised have indeed been addressed in ways he didn’t relay. And as usual, there was a simpler explanation that he ignored in what seems, for all intents and purposes, to be his long-running quest to plant seeds of doubt in people’s minds on a very dangerous topic.

“Between late December of 2020 and last month, a total of 3,362 people apparently died after getting the covid vaccine in the United States — 3,362,” Carlson said, citing data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). “That’s an average of roughly 30 people every day.”

He added: “It’s clear that what is happening now, for whatever reason, is not even close to normal. It is not even close to what we see in previous years with previous vaccines. Most vaccines are not accused of killing large numbers of people. … Again, more people, according to VAERS, have died after getting the shot in four months during a single vaccination campaign than from all other vaccines combined over more than a decade and a half. Chart that out. It’s a stunning picture.”

It may be a stunning picture, but it’s also a highly misleading and cherry-picked one.

The most crucial thing to note at the outset is that just because someone died after getting the vaccine doesn’t mean they died because of it. This is a point we’ll return to.

Another is that data in the VAERS system is unverified. Anyone can submit claims about what happened to them or someone they know. The idea is to give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tons of data to use and then evaluate potential links between vaccines and side effects. As The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss noted last month:

Anti-vaccination activists routinely exaggerate the dangers of vaccines by misinterpreting and misusing data from EudraVigilance and from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a U.S. government database that allows anyone to self-report “possible side effects or health problems” experienced after a vaccine, even minor ones such as soreness at the injection site.

In other words, it’s not the final word. It’s a bunch of open-access data that anyone can submit and that lots of amateur sleuths can then comb through.

The CDC, for its part, says it has analyzed the reports of deaths after coronavirus vaccines through May 3 and found no connection between the vaccine and deaths. “A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines,” it says. Carlson did not cite this. Even if he might not believe it — which seems quite likely — it would seem worth a mention.

But even if the data was completely accurate, would it truly be surprising?

The fact is that lots of people have received the vaccine — so many that plenty were going to die of something in the months that followed. By April 23, the end point of the data Carlson cited, more than 135 million people had received at least one dose, more than 40 percent of all Americans.

According to CDC data, an estimated 8,000 Americans die every day of all causes. That’s 1 in every 41,000 people, every day. If you apply that number to 135 million people who are vaccinated, you’d expect that more than 3,000 people who were vaccinated would be dying every day right now — again, of something. That’s significantly more than the 30 per day Carlson suggests is alarming. Even if you account for the gradual increase in vaccinations, the idea that we’d be seeing hundreds and then thousands of vaccinated people dying per day is completely expected.

It’s also very likely that many people whose vaccinated loved ones die would submit that information — either because they think the vaccine may have played a role, or because they simply want to help the government make that determination. As many as 1 in 5 Americans have reported hesitation to get the vaccines because of safety concerns, which is a lot of people who may be tempted to report such things when loved ones die.

And the vaccinated population isn’t just a random sample of 135 million Americans; the earliest vaccine efforts focused on elderly people who were more susceptible to the worst of the virus — and were also more susceptible to dying of other causes. In other words, we’d expect more deaths from all causes of vaccinated people.

The Pfizer clinical trial also showed that, of more than 18,000 people who received a placebo — i.e. not the vaccine — two later died. If you apply that rate to the more than 100 million people getting a vaccine, you get more than 10,000 deaths, and in a shorter time period than the one Carlson describes.

Carlson’s call for alarm didn’t rest only on the raw numbers, though. It also relied on comparing deaths after the coronavirus vaccine to deaths after other vaccines.

“Every flu season, for example, we give influenza shots to more than 116 million Americans,” Carlson said. “Every year, a relatively small number of people seem to die after getting those shots. To be precise, in 2019, that number was 203 people. The year before that, 2018, it was 119 people. In 2017, it was a total of just 85 people who died after getting the flu shot.”

It’s not at all clear where Carlson got his data, but it’s abundantly clear that he’s comparing apples and oranges. Although his data on the coronavirus vaccine are deaths after vaccination — and not necessarily because of it — it rather surely relies on a more established, causal link. (Flu vaccines have been connected to anaphylaxis and other side effects that can be life-threatening. As with the coronavirus vaccines, those side effects are exceedingly rare.) There is no question that exponentially more than 203 out of 100 million people who got the flu vaccine in 2019 went on to die of something in the months that followed.

As for Carlson’s broader case that deaths after coronavirus vaccinations far exceed deaths after other vaccines — he specifically mentioned the vaccine for bacterial meningitis — again, this is apples to oranges. Even if the data from VAERS was ironclad, vaccines are generally given to children, who are significantly less likely to die of something else in impending months and years, because they are young.

The final point is the rhetorical inconsistency. Carlson’s show last year was among those suggesting that the official death toll from the coronavirus might be inflated. The claim was often that people who died after contracting the virus might have in fact died of something else — this despite their deaths coming very shortly after infection and us knowing that the coronavirus exacerbates other preexisting conditions. Carlson is now effectively making the opposite implication: that we should all be very suspicious that people who get the vaccine and then die actually died because of the vaccine and not because of something else — even as the numbers he cited are deeply within the expected range.

Nicole Saphier, a doctor who happens to be a Fox News contributor, summed it up best shortly after clips of Carlson’s segment blew up on social media Wednesday night.

“It’s intriguing the people who claim Covid deaths were overinflated from concomitant illness are the same people who are saying people dying after the vaccine are dying from the vaccine and not because we vaccinated the most elderly, frail, sick individuals with short life spans,” Saphier said.

“Intriguing” is certainly one word for it. Others would be “sloppy” and “dangerous.”

Carlson has taken pains to argue that he’s not some kind of “anti-vaxxer” and that he generally thinks vaccines are good. Some of his guests have even urged people to get the coronavirus vaccine. But the thrust of his show on this topic has been unmistakable for months. As I’ve written before, it’s valid to raise questions about vaccines. When doing so, though, one should demonstrate the utmost care, given that misinformation can literally have life-or-death consequences — both for those who wind up not getting vaccinated and for the broader spread of deadly viruses.

Carlson’s network has thus far shown very little interest in ensuring that his commentary and use of data are anywhere close to rigorous or careful. And Wednesday night was a case in point.