“Died Suddenly”: A Terrifying Phrase

You’re much more likely to die suddenly from COVID than you are from a COVID vaccine. In fact, the vaccine helps keep that from happening to you.

Liz Ruark
Two COVID vaccine bottles

Hearing that a young, otherwise healthy person “died suddenly” isn’t just tragic — it’s frightening and unsettling. We respond to that news differently than we do to news of other deaths. Because when someone healthy “dies suddenly,” we’re missing a critical piece of information: We don’t know why that person died. That lack of knowledge is a big, scary hole. And when we don’t know why someone died, we don’t know how to keep the same thing from happening to us.

Over the past few weeks, a few famous people who are young (or young enough) have either died or come close to dying — suddenly. And some people have rushed to fill the scary hole of the unknown with the following claim: It happened because they were vaccinated for COVID-19.

Vaccines make an easy target for blame (even if it’s way off the mark), because people want a simple reason: One cause, one effect. And if it’s the vaccine’s fault, that’s something you can avoid — though the data says you shouldn’t, for reasons I’ll get into later on. Plus, for a lot of people, getting vaccinated is already a little scary. It involves needles, after all, and plenty of folks aren’t 100 percent sure how it works. (If you want to know, check out this article — I promise it’s short.)

But here’s the thing — you’re way more likely to die suddenly from COVID-19 itself than you are to die from a COVID vaccine. And not only that — if you’re vaccinated, you’re less likely to die suddenly from COVID or its aftermath.

How COVID affects your heart and blood vessels.

We think of COVID as a respiratory disease, because problems with the breathing system are what affect most people. But one of the other major body systems COVID harms is your circulatory system: your heart and blood vessels. The virus can make the blood-vessel lining both leaky and sticky. It also makes it more likely that your blood will clot inside your blood vessels, where it’s not supposed to.

When a blood clot blocks the vessels of your heart, it causes a heart attack. If a clot blocks the vessels of your brain, it causes a stroke. In addition, COVID can make the heart muscle itself weaker, so the heart can’t pump as well. If it gets weak enough, you go into heart failure. (This video with Dr. Celine Gounder of the Kaiser Family Foundation has a useful overview of the subject.)

These things can happen while you’re sick with COVID, or they can happen after you’ve recovered from the disease. They’re part of the reason why over 50,000 more people died of heart and blood vessel disease in 2020 than in 2019. Remember — in 2020 we didn’t have COVID vaccines. What we had was an awful lot of COVID-19.

If you’re vaccinated, you’re much less likely to get a severe case of COVID. That means you’re less likely to have any of the blood-vessel or heart problems that COVID causes, and less likely to die suddenly from them.

Vaccine side effects are real — and almost always mild.

All of the most common side effects of COVID vaccination are mild — things like a sore arm, a headache, a fever, or just being really tired. There are three well-known side effects that can be serious, and all of them happen very rarely.

  • The Johnson and Johnson vaccine was linked to a four in a million chance of a certain type of blood clot. That kind of clot can be fatal, which is part of the reason why the FDA recommends that most people get either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine instead. Even with that recommendation, though, it’s still safer to get the J&J vaccine than it is to get COVID-19.

  • In rare cases, people who get one of the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer or Moderna) vaccines can experience myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle. However, the chances of that happening are very low — about 100 in a million. Plus, the condition is usually mild and doesn’t last long. And guess what? You can get myocarditis from COVID, too. And when that happens as a result of COVID, it’s more likely to be severe and land you in the hospital.

  • The one other severe vaccine side effect that can happen is anaphylaxis. That’s a very serious allergic reaction, which can be fatal if it’s not treated right away. But the good news is that if you’re going to have anaphylaxis, it’s typically going to happen right after you get vaccinated. That’s why doctors and pharmacists ask you to wait for 15 minutes after you’ve had a shot for the first time. If you develop anaphylaxis they’ll see it and treat it immediately.

Sometimes you just need to wait to find out what happened.

The COVID vaccines are the most carefully studied of any vaccine in history. They have saved the lives of over 20 million people. None of the famous people who died suddenly in recent weeks did so because of a vaccine — whether for COVID or anything else.

Sometimes, in those sad cases, it can take a while to figure out what the cause of death was. We just needed to wait — for a few days, or a week or two — to learn what actually happened. And that time of not knowing is definitely scary. But filling the gap with fiction and more fear doesn’t help anyone. If we can just be patient, there’s often a simple answer to what happened — one that’s not just easy to understand, but is also, crucially, true.