VAERS has reported a huge spike in vaccine-related deaths. Is VAERS overstating the risks?

My sister informed me that she and the people she trusts are worried about new data coming from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, an official CDC database. There have been over 4,000 deaths within 30 days of a Covid vaccine dose reported on VAERS so far which would seem like a dramatic spike in deaths from the Covid vaccine if you don’t understand what the statistics mean.

The VAERS mortality numbers are completely misleading and I’m confident that the preponderance of evidence will show that none of the covid vaccines given so far has caused a mortality rate that is larger than say the risk of deaths due to the birth control pill per year which is about 5 per million.  I have a friend whose young sister tragically died from blood clots caused by birth control pills just before getting married.* The risk of clots from the birth control pill seems like an apt comparison with the risks of Covid vaccines since society has been freaking out about a possible association of less than 1/million deaths from blood clots due to the J&J vaccine which is much less than the risk of similar clots from birth control even though the birth control pill is mainly taken for recreational lifestyle purposes whereas the Covid vaccine has already saved tens of thousands of lives.  Nothing is completely without risk, and we don’t freak out about all the deaths that are directly caused by aspirin or vitamins or birth control given the other benefits of these drugs.

About 8000 Americans die every day and mostly due to illness.  That is the baseline daily mortality rate without Covid and well over 2,000 Americans have died per day from Covid diagnosis on average since the first vaccine was approved.  We have given 260milliion doses of the vaccine which is over 75% as big as the population of the US.  Given that the doses are disproportionately given to the elderly and none to children, the baseline mortality rate of the Americans who have gotten the vaccine is probably on the order of twice the rate for the Americans who haven’t gotten the vaccine.  Anyhow, let’s just round down and say that the age-adjusted mortality rate of people is only 33% higher than the American average.  Thus, there should have been about 8,000 Americans who died in the 24 hours after they got the vaccine.  If the VAERS reporting period for time between deaths and the vaccine is 10 days on average, then there should have been at least 80,000 deaths within ten days of getting a Covid vaccine and probably a lot more because I’m being fairly conservative in my estimates. Heck, there have probably been more Americans who died of Covid after getting vaccinated (and before the vaccine takes effect) than the total number of reported VAERS fatalities.

8,000 reported deaths sounds like a crisis, but this is an example of the base-rate fallacy because it is out of a total of 260 million people. Bayesian statistics teaches that whenever you have such a tiny fraction of the base rate, small amounts of noise in the data will completely swamp any signal. Every diagnostic system has a certain number of false positives and if our VAERS system only had a false positive rate of 5% in misattributing deaths to the vaccine, that would explain every single report.

VAERS reports have historically had a high false positive rate since anyone can submit reports and the false positive rate is undoubtedly higher than usual for Covid because there is much more hysteria about vaccines now than ever before due to hype on social media and Fox News.  Given the self-selection bias that ANYONE can report to VAERS including the wingnuts, and  I’d guess that there are more than 4,000 wingnuts in America, so a significant fraction of the VAERS number is going to be submitted by the crazies.  I mean, if mainstream media stars like Tucker Carlson started talking night after night about how aliens are killing people through mind control and named a website for reporting, I bet we’d get more than 8,000 reports of alien-mind-control deaths.  So until there is some analysis of the VAERS data to look for some plausible theory of how the vaccine could be killing people, I am not going to be worried about it.  I prefer to trust the numerous scientific studies over crowdsourced numbers.  VAERS is not a random sample. It has always been highly biased by reporting errors and now it has become more like an extension of social media so it is nearly impossible to make inferences from the raw VAERS numbers without a lot more analysis.

It is understandable that liberals wouldn’t trust a vaccine effort that Donald Trump deserves a  lot of credit for overseeing, but I haven’t seen evidence that he messed this up.  To the contrary, this is the one part of the Covid response that the US has succeeded at better than anywhere else in the world except Israel. So go get your #MAGAvaccine.

*Although the birth control pill elevates the risk of lethal blood clots, it reduces other health risks (like the risk of dying in pregnancy) and it reduces all-risk mortality, so it saves lives overall. I was ignoring the benefits side of the ledger above and just focusing on the mortality caused by the pill’s blood clot risks kinda like many of the anti-vaxers. So go ahead and get the pill too! It is so safe it really should be an over-the-counter medication. In countries where it is available without a prescription, they have health outcomes that are at least as good if not better than in countries where the pill is hard to get like in the USA.

Posted in Health

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