Grant Wahl’s wife fights vaccine misinformation in the wake of her husband’s death

When sports journalist Grant Wahl died of an aortic aneurysm while covering the World Cup in Qatar, a flood of misinformation took over social media, with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists falsely claiming the COVID vaccine was to blame. Wahl’s wife, Dr. Celine Gounder, is an infectious disease specialist. She joined Amna Nawaz to discuss the fight against this kind of disinformation.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest during an NFL game last week, a flood of misinformation took over on social media, with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists falsely claiming the COVID vaccine was to blame.

    The sudden death of sports journalist Grant Wahl, who died of an aortic aneurysm while covering the World Cup in Qatar last month, prompted a similar and again false narrative.

    Wahl's wife, Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist, is pushing back on this kind of disinformation, and she joins me now.

    Dr. Gounder, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being with us.

    And I just have to say how incredibly sorry we all are for your loss.

    It's only been a few weeks since you lost your husband. My very first question is just, how are you doing?

    Dr. Celine Gounder, Infectious Disease and Public Health Specialist: Thanks, Amna.

    I feel exhausted. I feel numb, which has me a bit scared, because I know this is going to hit me even harder. But nights are pretty tough, sort of when I get a chance to think about it. And it's really hard.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    These messages that came up after your husband's passing from total strangers, conspiracy theorists claiming the COVID vaccine was to blame, how and when did you start to see them? And what did you think in that moment?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    Well, I started to see rumors that my husband's death was related to COVID vaccines really as soon as news broke of his death.

    There were all kinds of rumors, and that ended up emerging as the leading one. And it was also really important to me to find out what had actually happened for myself and for my family, and also to put to rest some of these rumors, lies about my husband's death. And so we — I worked with the State Department and others to get his remains repatriated as quickly as we could, and then to have an autopsy done as quickly as we could.

    And all of that happened in the span of just a few days. And then I put out a statement with the results of his autopsy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Why was it so important for you to do that so quickly, to be as transparent as you were?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    Well, honestly, the results have given me some partial sense of closure or comfort, in that at least I have an explanation.

    I think, when something like this happens, so often, families find themselves asking why. Is there something I could have done? And I have continued to ask myself that question. But I also knew that the only way to put to rest these rumors was to get out accurate information, that the longer that there wasn't an answer, that we didn't know, that those rumors would only get worse.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And did it work? Did putting out the statement and information help in any way?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    It did initially. It really did quiet down the disinformation about my husband's death. I had thought we had put it to rest.

    And then, when Damar Hamlin had that in-game cardiac arrest, that really stirred things up all over again, with people asking, why is it these young healthy people are having — are dying suddenly or almost dying suddenly? And the conspiracy theory that had emerged around that is this idea that COVID vaccines are leading to death.

    And that's simply not true. We have plenty of data now from vaccination over the last several years, the last few years, that COVID vaccines do not result in an increased risk of non-COVID-related deaths and, of course, are preventing COVID-related deaths.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Gounder, you have been a prominent voice throughout this entire pandemic, offering your insights on the science and the facts behind what we know about the virus and the vaccine.

    You have talked about this vaccine disinformation playbook, as you call it. Tell me about that. What do you mean?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    Well, there are certain strategies that you see or tactics that are used over and over and over again by these disinformation spreaders.

    The first is fake experts. So there was a propaganda — anti-vaccine propaganda film that came out this fall that made use of funeral directors and the like to put out disinformation. These are not people who are experts in any way about vaccines, about infectious diseases or immunology. So that's one characteristic.

    Then you have what are called logical fallacies, which are essentially mental shortcuts that we use when we're bombarded with information. And a great example of this is, if A happens before B, that does not necessarily mean A caused B. And now 80 percent — over 80 percent of the people in this country have gotten one dose of vaccine. That does not mean that you can attribute all of the deaths that now occur in this country to COVID vaccines.

    Then you have impossible expectations. So an example of that are the people who said, I'm going to wait until the FDA issues full approval for vaccines, and then I will know it's safe enough. And then, after the full approval was issued, the goalposts moved, and they said, no, I still don't think there's enough data.

    And, finally, you have cherry-picking of data, so looking for the data that supports your hypothesis, even though it may not actually be connected or make sense. And then conspiracy theories, or, really, lies, about — one example of this would be microchips and vaccines. That simply is not true. There are no microchips in our vaccines to track people.

    But these are the characteristics or tactics that you see over and over and over again in this anti-vaxxer playbook.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    From an everyday consumer perspective, what can be done to push back against that?

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    Well, I think people like me who are experts need to be putting out good information.

    I think, if you yourself are concerned about why somebody in your family has died, I think an autopsy is a really important tool to help investigate that death. We have seen autopsy rates in the United States drop over the past few years. Now fewer than 10 percent of people who die in the United States get an autopsy.

    And so, when people call for an investigation into a death, that's what it means to investigate a death. So I have been a bit confused by people who are calling for an investigation, when that's exactly what we did, with medical examiners and forensic scientists. And that's how you get an answer.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Gounder, you're out here doing the work, continuing to put facts where they are most needed, in the hands of people. And you are still mourning your husband, who was a legendary soccer journalist, had many fans here in our "NewsHour" family.

    I'd like to just ask you what you want people to know about Grant.

  • Dr. Celine Gounder:

    Grant was kind. He was generous. He was curious.

    Anybody, from an elementary school student to a young soccer or sports journalist, who reached out to him for advice, he was always happy to give them time, to talk to them, to grab a coffee. If he — if he was asked for a contact, somebody else was doing a — reporting story on some other athlete that Grant new, Grant was happy to share his Rolodex with people and was very generous. He didn't view that as competition.

    And I think one major legacy also is the way in which he advanced social justice and human rights through his reporting, whether that was women in sports or LGBTQ rights or, recently, the rights of migrant workers in Qatar. And I think showing that sports is not just sports, but it's also at this intersection of culture and politics, was a big part of what Grant did in his career.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Celine Gounder, infectious disease specialist, joining us tonight, thank you for your time.

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