Northern California sheriff’s office defends posting death of COVID vaccine recipient

Michael McGough, Tony Bizjak
·8 min read

California state health leaders on Monday said they have joined a review of the unusual death last week of a person in Placer County shortly after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, describing the case as “complex,” but saying they have not determined if there is link between the vaccine and the death.

“We are working closely with the coroner to determine the details around the death,” state health official Dr. Mark Ghaly said during a Monday press briefing on COVID-19 issues. He called the case complex and “worth further investigation,” but declined to offer further details.

Ghaly sought to assure residents that the vaccines currently in use have been vetted and are generally safe.

“These are safe vaccines. We are watching them successfully administered across the globe,” Ghaly said.

There have been cases, however, of some people with acute allergies suffering anaphylactic, or severe, reactions requiring treatment. There are no instances yet in the United States of a person dying from the vaccine.

The announcement by Placer officials over the weekend prompted questions about why health officials and the Sheriff’s Office publicly announced that a resident received the coronavirus vaccine and died the same day, even as no connection between the vaccination and the death had been established.

The death occurred last Thursday; it was announced Saturday, with Placer’s public health office and the coroner’s division of the Sheriff’s Office saying in a joint statement that “multiple local, state, and federal agencies” were “actively investigating” the death.

The statement notes that “reports surrounding the cause of death are premature” pending that investigation, meaning there has been no indication that the death was connected to the recently administered vaccine dose. Leading health officials warn that people — especially older people, the bulk of vaccine recipients in the current phase of California’s roll out — die all the time of various causes, and that deaths occurring the same day as a vaccine dose are not indicative of a link.

That reality has prompted swarms of social media users to take to comment sections to criticize the Placer County Sheriff’s Office for posting the statement. They express worry that, regardless of the disclaimer about a cause of death, the post will feed skepticism and misconceptions about COVID-19 vaccines, which clinical trial data from Pfizer and Moderna have shown to be safe and effective.

The Sheriff’s Office, and many others in a divided Facebook comments section, defended the announcement as an effort to maintain transparency about what a sheriff’s spokesperson called a “unique situation.” The person who died had tested positive for COVID-19 in late December and died “several hours” after receiving a vaccine dose, the Placer statement said.

Placer sheriff’s spokeswoman Angela Musallam said Monday morning the department will release another statement once an autopsy is completed, but declined to say when that is expected.

She defended her department’s release of the information prior to knowing whether the death was connected to the vaccine, saying it was done in an effort to be open with the public, especially during an era when the trust between the public and government officials has eroded.

“This is a unique situation for us in Placer County. We value transparency. It’s best to be transparent,” Musallam said.

Musallam declined to give the person’s age.

In a separate follow-up statement, Placer County’s Public Health department wrote: “Our thoughts are with the family of the deceased. We take these instances seriously which is why we are working with our government partners to investigate the cause.

“We are working collaboratively and will continue to use data and science to determine how to proceed.”

The initial death announcement was posted as a news release on the Placer County website and as a Facebook post by the Sheriff’s Office on Saturday afternoon.

The latter drew a huge amount of attention, gaining nearly 2,800 comments and more than 3,000 “shares” on Facebook within 48 hours — far more than typical for the agency’s posts.

One word popped up often in user comments: “Irresponsible.”

“If investigation is still pending, wait until you have all the facts,” one of the top-engaged comments reads. “This post creates fear and questions. It’s not OK. Why would you post this vague and terrifying information?”

What do experts think?

Dr. George Rutherford, one of the nation’s leading authorities on COVID-19 and head of the Division of Infectious Disease and Global Epidemiology at UC San Francisco’s School of Medicine, is among those who caution that many older people die every day of a variety of causes, unrelated to COVID-19 or the vaccine.

The California Department of Public Health reported that as of Sunday, providers statewide had administered more than 2.3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine, within the past seven weeks. Many of those recipients are elderly because CDPH has limited priority to front-line health workers, nursing home residents and those ages 75 and up.

Rutherford points out that a certain number of deaths of various cause will come after someone gets the vaccine, simply by happenstance.

In this case, Rutherford cautions that people should await the outcome of the autopsy before drawing any conclusions, either way, about the COVID-19 vaccines.

He declined to comment on whether Placer County sheriff’s officials were irresponsible for, as users alleged, connecting the death with the vaccine by way of Saturday’s post.

Rutherford said the ongoing concerns some people have about the vaccine may cause people to make incorrect assumptions.

“Whenever you vaccinate people, anything that happens afterward is going to be blamed by some on the vaccine,” he said. “We are vaccinating elderly and frail people ... You have to investigate these things. I understand the CDC is investigating this case as well. We will have to see. It could be anaphylactic, or it could be something completely unrelated.”

Some infectious disease experts have harshly criticized agencies quickly reporting deaths of vaccine recipients prior to full investigation, saying this opens the door for anti-vaccine groups to spread misinformation.

“You get one chance to make a first impression,” said epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm, a member of President Joe Biden’s transition advisory board, according to a recent story from CNN. “Even if we come back later and say, ‘No, (the deaths) had nothing to do with vaccination, it was coronary artery disease,’ the damage has already been done.”

The Placer County death made local, national and international headlines almost immediately. From Fox News to Xinhua News — a Chinese state-controlled media outlet with 88 million followers — Facebook posts citing the Placer County Sheriff’s Office statement as its source garnered thousands of comments, shares and reactions on the website.

The Sheriff’s Office took a combative tone in some of its comments responding to Facebook users beneath its own post. To the woman who wrote that its statement was “vague and terrifying,” sheriff’s officials penned a reply that began: “Too bad.”

“We also have protocols and policies to follow, and we are releasing what we can to the public,” that comment continued. “Accuracy trumps instant gratification here.”

In another comment to a different user criticizing the post, the Sheriff’s Office wrote: “If you’re unhappy with the set of information we have provided, feel free to unfollow this page,” a remarkable message coming from a government public safety agency. Sheriff’s offices, including Placer, routinely use their Facebook pages to give followers timely updates on law enforcement activity, wildfire evacuations and other urgent safety threats.

Are COVID-19 vaccines safe? Clinical trial data says yes

Data on adverse reactions from recipients in the clinical trial showed that while many experienced mild, temporary side effects, serious reactions were extremely infrequent, according to CDC’s summaries for both Pfizer and Moderna’s trials, in which tens of thousands participated.

Many of the reactions were “local,” meaning limited to the point of injection on the body.

“Systemic” reactions like fever, fatigue and headaches were also frequent, but the number of these classified as “Grade 4” — requiring hospitalization or an emergency room visit — was extremely low in each manufacturer’s trial, occurring for fewer than 1 in 1,000 vaccine recipients.

For Pfizer, just two out of 7,851 shots (0.03%) from the non-placebo group were followed by hospitalizations for adverse effects, both of them high fevers. Of more than 29,000 non-placebo shots in Moderna’s trials, just 17 reactions (0.06%) were Grade 4: one for joint pain, one for fatigue and the remaining 15 for fevers. No deaths from these adverse effects were noted in the trials.

Both are also highly effective in preventing COVID-19. Phase 3 trials showed Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, both two-dose regimens, as each being about 95% efficient in preventing recipients from contracting the virus. The Food and Drug Administration had set the bar for emergency use authorization at 50%.