NFL player Damar Hamlin, a safety for the Buffalo Bills, collapsed mid-game on Monday night—during the first quarter of a match against the Cincinnati Bengals. Hamlin remains hospitalized in critical condition, following apparent cardiac arrest, according to a statement posted across the Buffalo Bills’ official team social media accounts.
Yet within hours of the football player falling unconscious and crumpling on the field, anti-vax conspiracy theorists seized the opportunity to spread disinformation on the internet. Numerous tweets insinuating (or outright blaming) the covid-19 vaccine for Hamlin’s collapse popped up in the incident’s aftermath, as first reported by the Washington Post.
“Everybody knows what happened to Damar Hamlin because it’s happened to too many athletes around the world since COVID vaccination was required in sports,” former Newsmax and OANN corespondent, Emerald Robinson, tweeted. She has nearly 500,000 followers on the platform, and her post has been viewed more than 2.3 million times.
Charlie Kirk, noted disinformation disseminator and Turning Point USA founder, stoked the fire of the same conspiracy theory, tweeting “This is a tragic and all too familiar sight right now: Athletes dropping suddenly.” Kirk has nearly 2 million followers and his post has been seen more than 11.7 million times.
Business mogul and prominent anti-vaxxer, Grant Cardone, also quickly joined in on the unscientific theorizing. He tweeted, “Do you think the medical society should investigate THE VACCINE as responsible for sudden deaths like tonight’s Damar Hamlin collapse? #SuddenDeath,” in a post that’s been viewed more than 3.4 million times. Note: Damar Hamlin is not dead, and his condition is reportedly improving.
Then, the conspiracy got even more exposure on Tuesday night when Tucker Carlson took to cable television to call medical experts and other media outlets “witch doctors,” and promote vaccine skepticism. His argument: “We can’t say it was the shot. We can’t say it wasn’t the shot. We don’t whether he got the shot.”
But here’s the thing: We do know that the risk of heart inflammation and other cardiac problems is significantly higher with coronavirus infection itself, than from the vaccine. Myocarditis, or heart inflammation, is a documented, rare side effect of the vaccine. In one study of 43 million people, just 617 experienced myocarditis within 28 days of receiving a vaccine. And people, both unvaccinated and vaccinated, were about 10 times more likely to end up with myocarditis immediately following a positive covid test than following vaccination. Another 2022 study determined covid infection increased myocarditis risk by seven fold more than covid vaccination.
Because vaccines still do so much to reduce the risk and severity of infections, even against newer variants, the covid-19 vaccine actually protects heart health. The most recent, fast-spreading variants do seem to evade vaccine immunity better than past viral strains. However, vaccinated people are still significantly less likely than unvaccinated people to be infected or become seriously ill with covid-19—and are thus less likely to end up with myocarditis.
Conversely, sudden cardiac arrest in athletes is a well-documented, tragic phenomenon that predates the covid-19 pandemic. Sudden cardiac death is “the most frequent medical cause of sudden death in athletes,” said one 2016 medical study. Other studies, at least one more than 25 years old, illustrate the particular risk of “commotio cordis,” a term for blunt force trauma to the chest and subsequent sudden cardiac arrest and death. Though the condition is rare overall, it’s considerably more common among athletes, Christopher Madias, a physician and researcher at Tufts Medical Center, told NPR.
Right before his collapse, Hamlin sustained a hard hit to the torso during a tackle. With commotio cordis, such blows trigger the heart’s electrical signals to misfire and lead the organ to stop suddenly. It has happened to professional athletes before. For instance, hockey player Chris Pronger, who went down during a 1998 NHL game. Pronger recovered and played in the league for 13 more years.
Amid the muddle of vaccine conspiracies, multiple doctors and other medical experts have taken to Twitter and media outlets to explain this much more feasible theory. Yet, these posts appear to have a fraction of the views and engagement as the anti-vax content.
Prior to Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, covid-19 misinformation was barred on the platform. Posts promoting unfounded, anti-vax rhetoric could be flagged for removal and taken down. At the end of November, however, the platform dropped the policy. And Musk himself has multiple anti-vax posts, implying that those who get the shot are “brainwashed.”
But, in slightly more uplifting internet news, Damar Hamlin’s hospitalization has also led to an outpouring of support for the player and his family. The reaction to Hamlin’s medical emergency hasn’t just been conspiracy tweets. A GoFundMe page that Hamlin initially set up in 2020 to purchase toys for children in need has raised millions of dollars since Monday’s incident. Thousands of the donations are also accompanied by written well-wishes for Hamlin and hope for his recovery
Amid the renewed attention on the fundraiser, a representative of the Hamlin family wrote, “Damar created The Chasing M’s Foundation to use as a vehicle to bring lasting impact to his community. The foundation supports toy drives, back-to-school drives, kids camps, and more,” in an update. “We’re hopeful about Damar’s future involvement in disbursing the incredibly generous contributions.”
Correction 1/5/2023, 9:05 a.m. ET: A previous version of this post used the term “heart attack” improperly. Damar Hamlin suffered from apparent cardiac arrest, not a heart attack.
Correction 1/5/2023, 12:44 p.m. ET: Damar Hamlin sustained a blow to the chest after tackling another player on the field, not after being tackled.