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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Behind the birth of an anti-vaccine story

Almost as soon as COVID vaccines were approved in Washington, concerns about myocarditis started fueling claims from anti-vaccine activists on social media.

By Stuart A. Thompson

Before he received his second shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, there was little reason to think that George Watts Jr. was about to die.

He was 24 and showed no obvious health problems. He spent most of his time playing video games in his room at his parents’ house in Elmira, a city in south central New York.

That is where he was when he collapsed on Oct. 27, 2021.

George Jr.’s mother, Kathy, called 911 and started CPR. Paramedics rushed him to the emergency room, where doctors pronounced him dead.

What happened?

To the family, the answer was instantly obvious. “I blame that damn COVID vaccine,” Kathy Watts said after learning her son had died, according to her husband, George Watts Sr.

The medical examiner at a New York hospital reached a similar conclusion, adding more specifics: The cause of death, he wrote, was “COVID-19 vaccine-related myocarditis,” an uncommon and often mild condition involving inflammation of the heart. It can develop when the body battles viruses, responds to certain vaccines, or nearly a dozen other reasons. Multiple studies say the condition can develop in some people, particularly young men, who receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Before long, news of George Jr.’s death ricocheted around the internet, transforming the family’s tragedy into a powerful anecdote inside anti-vaccine communities. It was shared as an urgent warning about vaccine dangers on online forums, podcasts and Facebook groups.

To vaccine opponents, George Jr.’s case delivered an unambiguous warning: Vaccines can kill.

As those claims spread online, many medical experts started raising questions. Myocarditis could have been the culprit, they said, but it was difficult to conclude that the vaccine was the cause.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received specimens from George Jr.’s autopsy and is finalizing a pathology report, according to the New York State Department of Health.

Those outstanding questions, however, have not stopped activists, radio hosts and disinformation peddlers from declaring unambiguously that George Jr.’s death resulted from his COVID-19 vaccination.

A young man gets vaccinated

George Jr. hoped to transform his passion for video games into a career by enrolling in community college in nearby Corning for computer science. The pandemic derailed much of his campus experience, and his grades were slipping heading into his last semester because of remote learning. He thought getting back to the classroom could turn things around.

But first, he needed to be vaccinated — a requirement for students at the school, run by the State University of New York.

His parents did not trust the vaccine. George Sr. believed it had been developed too quickly.

George Jr. had avoided the vaccine earlier in 2021 when it had received emergency-use authorization. He received his first dose on Aug. 27, 2021, four days after the Food and Drug Administration gave it its full approval.

Shortly after receiving his second dose, on Sept. 17, George Jr. started feeling pain in his heels, according to medical records and his father’s account. By early October, his fingers started going numb.

By mid-October, his father was so concerned that he drove him to the emergency room. Among other things, George Jr. had the markers of an upper respiratory infection. An X-ray showed no abnormalities or fluid in his lungs. He said he didn’t have chest pain or shortness of breath, according to the coroner’s investigation, two common symptoms among myocarditis patients.

Doctors diagnosed him with a sinus infection and bronchitis and prescribed antibiotics. A week later, George Jr. was rushed back to the emergency room after coughing so much that he started vomiting. Doctors found no obvious lung problems, his heart wasn’t enlarged, and there were no signs of cardiac issues, according to the coroner’s report.

Eight days after his emergency room visit, George Jr. collapsed and died. His body was transported 40 minutes east, to Binghamton, for an autopsy at Lourdes Hospital.

The medical examiner at Lourdes found that the heart muscle, the myocardium, was losing some of its strength and sagging. Parts of the heart, when examined under a microscope, were inflamed. Both are clues that point toward myocarditis.

Myocarditis: A known risk

Myocarditis sometimes interferes with the heart’s function, interrupting electrical signals and causing chest pain, an irregular heartbeat and, in extremely rare cases, cardiac arrest.

It is well established that the mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna slightly increase the risk of developing myocarditis, especially in young men. Most patients recover from the condition after at least 90 days. Doctors concluded the benefits from getting vaccinated far outweighed the risks.

Deaths tied to the vaccine are extremely rare. Worldwide, there are a few known myocarditis deaths among vaccinated individuals, among hundreds of millions who received a shot.

An anti-vaccine story takes off

Almost as soon as COVID vaccines were approved in Washington, concerns about myocarditis started fueling claims from anti-vaccine activists on social media.

In the case of George Jr.’s death, vaccine opponents had one piece of concrete evidence: a death certificate that placed the blame squarely on the vaccine.

Noticing that George Jr.’s story could yield some political influence, a collection of anti-vaccine influencers sought out the Watts family, introducing them to large platforms and even larger goals.

Shannon Joy, a radio and podcast host in Rochester, New York, brought George Sr. onto her show. In her mind, George Jr.’s case “got to the truth” about vaccines despite pushback from mysterious forces.

Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit founded by anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., approached the Watts family, kick-starting a relationship that resulted in a long-shot lawsuit against the Defense Department, which had overseen the vaccine’s development. The lawsuit claimed the department had used George Jr. as “an unwitting guinea pig” in a “mass human experiment.”

Doctors raise doubts

When George Jr.’s spleen was removed during autopsy, the medical examiner found it remarkably enlarged. It weighed 1,350 grams. A typical spleen weighs around 200 grams. But the medical examiner gave no explanation.

His kidney was also damaged, showing both inflammation and dead tissue. His lungs showed late-stage pneumonia. His brain showed chronic inflammation.

“It’s like the whole immune system was just revved up everywhere,” said Dr. James Gill, the chief medical examiner for Connecticut and former president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Even more alarming was the condition of George Jr.’s prostate gland, which was yellow in places and partially necrotic, meaning partially dead. That could explain the blood found in his urine during his emergency room visits.

Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a pediatrician from nearby Rochester, was skeptical about the medical examiner’s conclusions. If he “is going to say myocarditis due to the vaccine, then why isn’t he also saying kidney damage due to the vaccine? And lung damage and brain damage and prostate damage due to the vaccine?” she said. “None of that was listed.”

The report being prepared by the CDC could shed more light on George Jr.’s death. If they agree with the medical examiner, George Jr.’s death could become the first that the department has tied to vaccine-related myocarditis in the United States. If they disagree, it could offer more clarity about what happened to George Jr.

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