On January 5, Hank Aaron, the legendary homerun hitter, posted on Twitter that he had been vaccinated against the coronavirus at Morehouse School of Medicine, along with other prominent Atlanta civil rights activists who were 75 years or older and were part of the group with the highest priority to be vaccinated.
"I hope you do the same!" he wrote.
Seventeen days later, Mr. Aaron died at the age of 86.
Now anti-vaccine activists including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a well-known vaccine skeptic, are seizing his death to suggest – with no evidence – that there may be a connection.
"That was a pure coincidence," countered Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, Founding Dean of Morehouse Medical School and Secretary for Health and Human Services, George H.W. Bush administration that was vaccinated along with Mr. Aaron. He told Atlanta broadcaster WSB-TV: "However, it is if you could say that Hank was in a car before he died and we are trying to attribute his death to being in a car."
The Fulton County medical examiner also said there was nothing to suggest that Mr. Aaron had an allergic or anaphylactic reaction related to the vaccine.
Even so, Mr Aaron's death has been embroiled in a vortex of misinformation and misunderstanding regarding the coronavirus and society's efforts to fight it. Skepticism about the vaccines has emerged as one of the recent forms of resistance health officials faced during the pandemic, as critics broke the rules of social distancing and were reluctant to cover their faces with masks.
Protesters forced Los Angeles authorities to close the entrance to Dodger Stadium, one of the largest vaccination sites in the country, for an hour on Saturday. About 50 demonstrators had gathered there, some holding placards saying "99.96% survival rate" and "End the lockdown".
Health officials say the two vaccines already approved for use appear reasonably safe to date, with more than 23 million doses administered in the US. There have been some serious allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, but they are treatable and considered rare, and no deaths have been reported. The rates at which anaphylaxis has occurred to date – five cases per million doses for the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech and 2.8 cases per million for the vaccine from Moderna – are in line with other widely used vaccines.
At a meeting of expert advisers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, Dr. Tom Shimabukuro from C.D.C. said: "Overall, the safety profiles of the Covid-19 vaccines are reassuring and in line with those seen in the pre-approval clinical trials."
He said the federal government had "conducted the most intense and comprehensive vaccination safety surveillance program in history."
Even so, anti-vaccine activists have tried to undermine public confidence in the vaccines by using social media to spread unsubstantiated reports of people dying or suffering from drastic side effects.
Answers to your vaccine questions
Am I eligible for the Covid vaccine in my state?
Currently more than 150 million people – almost half of the population – can be vaccinated. But each state makes the final decision on who goes first. The country's 21 million healthcare workers and three million long-term care residents were the first to qualify. In mid-January, federal officials asked all states to open eligibility to anyone over the age of 65 and adults of all ages with conditions that are at high risk of becoming seriously ill or dying of Covid-19. Adults in the general population are at the end of the line. If federal and state health authorities can remove bottlenecks in the distribution of vaccines, everyone over the age of 16 is eligible in spring or early summer. The vaccine has not been approved in children, although studies are ongoing. It can take months before a vaccine is available to anyone under the age of 16. Please visit your state health website for the latest information about vaccination guidelines in your area
Is the Vaccine Free?
You shouldn't have to pay anything out of pocket to get the vaccine, despite being asked for insurance information. If you don't have insurance, you should still get the vaccine for free. Congress passed law this spring banning insurers from applying cost-sharing such as a co-payment or deductible. It consisted of additional safeguards prohibiting pharmacies, doctors, and hospitals from charging patients, including uninsured patients. Even so, health experts fear that patients will end up in loopholes that make them prone to surprise bills. This could be the case for people who are charged a doctor's visit fee with their vaccine, or for Americans who have certain types of health insurance that are not covered by the new regulations. If you received your vaccine from a doctor's office or emergency clinic, talk to them about possible hidden costs. To make sure you don't get a surprise invoice, it is best to get your vaccine from a Department of Health vaccination center or local pharmacy as soon as the shots become more widely available.
Can I choose which vaccine to get?How long does the vaccine last? Do I need another next year?
That is to be determined. It is possible that Covid-19 vaccinations will become an annual event just like the flu vaccination. Or the vaccine may last longer than a year. We'll have to wait and see how durable the protection from the vaccines is. To determine this, researchers will track down vaccinated people to look for "breakthrough cases" – those people who get Covid-19 despite being vaccinated. This is a sign of a weakening of protection and gives researchers an indication of how long the vaccine will last. They will also monitor the levels of antibodies and T cells in the blood of vaccinated individuals to see if and when a booster shot might be needed. It is conceivable that people might need boosters every few months, once a year, or just every few years. It's just a matter of waiting for the data.
Does my employer need vaccinations?Where can I find out more?
Surveys have shown that public confidence in vaccines has generally strengthened over the past few months, but African American confidence is lower than that of other populations, even though the virus has permeated this community with punitive anger.
Because of this, the Morehouse School of Medicine gathered pioneering civil rights activists like Aaron and Andrew Young, former United Nations Ambassadors, to get vaccinated and lead by example.
"They marched in the elections to secure our rights," Valerie Montgomery Rice, dean and president of the medical school, said in a statement. "And now they are rolling up their sleeves to save lives."