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Fact check: No reports of deaths linked to COVID-19 vaccines in the US

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COVID-19 vaccinations are distributed at  Garrett Academy in North Charleston during the first week of March. Despite misinformation shared on social media that sources a federal vaccine safety database, there is no proof of any patients having died as a result of taking a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

While it's normal to have a fever, soreness or other side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine, local experts say a connected fatality isn't an outcome people should worry about. 

Despite misinformation shared on social media that sources a federal vaccine safety database, there is no proof of any patients having died as a result of taking a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States.

A tracking system at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathers reports of deaths after COVID-19 vaccination, but there is no evidence to suggest the vaccine was the cause. 

"We haven’t seen a single vaccine-related death. Not a single one," said Dr. Danielle Scheurer, chief quality officer at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Scheurer added the chances of having long-term side effects from COVID-19 — or dying from the disease — are much greater.

Hesitancy to take one of the vaccines authorized for distribution in the United States is still widespread; 15 percent of respondents to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey said they hadn't gotten a vaccine and don't plan to.

The survey takers' top-cited reason for their hesitancy was concern for possible side effects.

Anyone — patient or provider — can report what is known as an "adverse event" to the system, formally called the "Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System." Reportable reactions include everything from severe allergic reactions to fevers to death.

As of April 5, the VAERS system logged 2,794 reports of death among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Robert Oliverio, a chief medical officer at Roper St. Francis Healthcare, said the number of deaths that shows up in VAERS is "nonsense" when considered as a statistic. He said there is no time limit to when someone can make a report to VAERS following the vaccination, meaning they could have died days or weeks later.

"It doesn't give you any idea of what caused the deaths," he said, given that millions of Americans have gotten shots, and by random chance, some will die not long after their appointment.

Oliverio said it is 1,500 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than it is to have any kind of severe reaction to one of the vaccines authorized by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. He said the greatest risk for a severe reaction is with anaphylaxis, and statistically it is still more likely to be struck by lightning. 

The CDC investigates each report of a death. Dr. Brannon Traxler, interim public health director for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said because of the way incidents are reported to VAERS there is plenty of bias present in its data. She said just because a death shows up in the VAERS system does not mean the vaccine was the cause of death.

"It's unknown whether there is any relationship there," Traxler said. 

For example, about 2 million vaccines were distributed in the U.S. by mid-January, and 196 deaths were reported to the VAERS system by that time. Two-thirds were long-term care facility residents. 

CDC experts followed up on each incident, calculated how many deaths they would usually expect to see if the vaccine wasn't being given, and found the number of deaths reported was in line with what would be expected given normal conditions.

Statewide numbers

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New cases reported: 453 confirmed, 300 probable.

Total cases in S.C.: 471,855 confirmed, 91,572 probable.

Percent positive: 4 percent.

New deaths reported: 0 confirmed, 0 probable.

Total deaths in S.C.: 8,165 confirmed, 1,111 probable.

Percent of ICU beds filled: 68 percent.

How does S.C. rank in vaccines administered per 100,000 people?

41st as of April 11, according to the CDC.

Hardest-hit areas

In the total number of newly confirmed cases, Greenville County (75), Charleston County (44) and Berkeley County (31) saw the highest totals.

What about the tri-county?

Charleston County had 44 new cases on April 12, while Berkeley had 31 and Dorchester had 16.

Hospitalizations

Of the 511 COVID-19 patients hospitalized as of April 11, 126 were in the ICU and 65 were using ventilators.

What do experts say? 

A local chain of primary care offices is hosting COVID-19 vaccine events where Pfizer doses will be available by appointment only. 

Liberty Doctors will be at the Chabad of Charleston Center for Jewish Life on Mathis Ferry Road in Mount Pleasant on April 15. On April 17, Liberty Doctors will host a drive-thru clinic in West Ashley. 

Anyone 16 and older who is interested can schedule an appointment at www.libertydoctors.com/clinics.

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