“It’s a tragic and all-too-familiar sight right now,” Kirk wrote on Twitter: “Athletes suddenly drop.”
To someone outside of the narrative bubble Kirk inhabits — the bubble Kirk actively inflates — this reads like a sober analysis of a subtle trend. For anyone familiar with Kirk and right-wing efforts to undermine confidence in coronavirus vaccines, what he is saying is very obvious. It was his point.
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There are a few layers here that are worth picking up.
The first is the alleged link between “athlete dropout” and coronavirus vaccines. In short, a number of injuries, illnesses and unexpected performances have been linked without proof to the vaccination of athletes. It’s quite explicitly a selection of cherries: anything even remotely related to circulatory problems has been grouped into a broad “just ask!” universe of suspicion, usually by those on the political right. It’s not that there’s a demonstrable increase in disease among athletes; it is that any illness in any athlete at any level now becomes fodder to include in this universe. The fact that some 70,000 Americans under the age of 45 suffer strokes each year means there are plenty of cherries that could be picked.
The overlap with politics is obvious. The political right’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has shifted from reluctant support for measures to limit the spread of the virus to outright opposition – in large part thanks to President Donald Trump’s determination that the country should put the virus behind him as he approaches re-election. Trump and other Republicans have disparaged public health experts and raised fringe voices raising conspiracy theories about the virus. While Trump hoped to take credit for the rapid development and deployment of vaccines targeting the virus, those vaccines were associated with President Biden’s administration and drew the same kind of backlash against official recommendations that spurred treatments. marginal and foreign covid-19 like hydroxychloroquine.
The clearest demonstration of the evolution of the right is in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has moved from defending shutdowns to fully reopening while encouraging vaccination – to treat vaccines not just as dangerous but as part of a concerted plot to defraud the public. This is despite vaccines having averted millions of American deaths, according to recent research. But, for many, the political benefits of being a staunch opponent of the vaccine have proven too compelling.
This includes Kirk, whose job at Turning Point USA seems to be largely about engaging in fringe fights against culture in an effort to gain attention and funding. But it’s not just Kirk and DeSantis who understand that vaccine skepticism is a path to audience building. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson has been nurturing the idea for months.
Even outlets like the increasingly fringe Rasmussen Reports are publishing surveys claiming large numbers of Americans think they know someone who died from side effects of a vaccine — an effort to inject dubious evidence into the debate. (To bolster the legitimacy of the idea, Rasmussen cites a film by a far-right radio host named Stew Peters, who last May declared that his political enemies were “possessed by demons”.)
The idea that real evidence from credentialed observers can be successfully refuted by anecdotes and the musings of independent researchers stretches in various directions beyond just pointing athlete injuries with a raised eyebrow. A common argument is that there has been an increase in excess deaths (i.e. deaths above what would otherwise be expected) which correlates with an increase in coronavirus vaccinations. But, of course, that’s largely because thousands of people have died from covid-19.
You can see this in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instantly, of course, a portion of readers will scoff at the idea that CDC numbers are reliable, a downstream view of skepticism about any “official” numbers. At this level of denial, no factual answer can suffice. For everyone else, however, tabulated data is useful.
In 2021 and 2022, using weighted estimates of excess mortality (to account for numbers that come months after deaths), it was states with lower vaccination rates in mid-2021 that had more excess mortality. This applies both to the whole and to the group allegedly suffering from these vaccine-related deaths, the under 50s.
Again, there’s not much mystery here: States with lower vaccination rates were also more likely to see higher rates of covid-19 deaths. This again applies to young Americans as well as all residents of a given state.
In large part, this is because coronavirus vaccines have proven effective in preventing serious illness and death over the past two years. There may be other factors; states with higher vaccination rates also likely had more people taking preventative measures to avoid infection. But vaccination is a central reason and a clear point of correlation.
Again, these numbers are not in competition with Kirk’s own medical research. They compete with innuendo aimed at bolstering Kirk’s credentials with vaccine skeptics who refuse to accept the lack of evidence supporting the idea that vaccines lead to serious illness and frequent death.
It’s not yet known exactly what caused Damar Hamlin’s heart to briefly stop beating after colliding with another player on Monday night. This likely temporary uncertainty allows opportunists like Kirk to step in and make a political claim, a claim that contributes to a vague sense of uncertainty about vaccines and a claim that will undoubtedly not be corrected if the cause of the Hamlin’s injury is clearly differentiated from anything vaccine-related. .
Because it’s not about evidence in the first place.