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Social media posts misrepresent CDC data on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in teens

CLAIM: Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that COVID-19 vaccines will not prevent any deaths among teenagers and lead to 100,000 to 200,000 severe side effects.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. The CDC data from a recent presentation does not show the vaccine playing any significant role in preventing deaths among teens because they are statistically the least likely to die from the virus, experts explained. But the data shows the vaccine will prevent teens from developing serious symptoms that require hospitalization. Moreover, the “severe” side effects cited in the data refers to the degree of pain and discomfort associated with redness, tenderness, and swelling and other common adverse reactions to the shot.

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THE FACTS: Social media users are claiming CDC data shows COVID vaccines not only don’t work but also cause hundreds of thousands of severe side effects.

Many are sharing a screenshot of a post that cites a CDC presentation released this month as the agency recommended everyone 6 months and older get an updated COVID shot ahead of the fall and winter seasons. The slide show gives various projections for the spread of coronavirus and the potential impact of the vaccine.

“Again, from @CDCgov’s OWN data: 1 million mRNA Covid shots for teens will prevent 0-1 Covid deaths and CAUSE 100,000-200,000 severe side effects,” the post reads. “Yes, you read that right.”

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But the CDC data cited in the post isn’t the smoking gun that some social media users think it is, vaccine experts said.

For one thing, adolescents and young teens are less likely to die from COVID than any other age group, meaning the number of deaths prevented by the vaccines will logically be low, said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Children under the age of 18 accounted for less than 1% of all COVID deaths in the U.S. since the pandemic started, according to CDC data.

“There are really no deaths to prevent, so it’s not surprising that the number of deaths prevented is extremely low,” Adalja wrote in an email. “There are less deaths to prevent in children.”

The widely shared posts also leave out numerous portions of the CDC data that underscore the vaccine’s effectiveness, Adalja and others noted.

The posts include screengrabs of two slides from the Sept. 12 presentation. The first slide included in the posts shows how many hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions are anticipated to be prevented for every one million COVID vaccine doses administered to children ages 12 to 17 years old.

But the social media posts crop out the bottom part of the slide, which shows that zero cases of myocarditis were reported among more than 100,000 teens who received the prior version of the vaccine, known as the bivalent booster, notes Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at the New England Complex Systems Institute, a private research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rare cases of heart inflammation were reported during the rollout of the original vaccine, mostly in young men or teen boys. However, research has shown that actually contracting COVID poses a greater risk of developing it.

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The posts also don’t mention subsequent slides in the CDC presentation, which estimate that the vaccine will help prevent hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and tens of thousands of deaths from COVID over the next two years, Feigl-Ding said.

As to the “severe” side effects, the claims are referring to another slide in the CDC presentation that looks at the vaccine’s “reactogenicity,” or its capacity to produce fevers and other common adverse reactions, explained Katelyn Yetelina, an epidemiologist who authors a popular Substack debunking COVID-19 misinformation.

Adalja said the CDC data focuses on the more severe symptoms — the ones considered Grade 3, which prevent daily activity, or Grade 4, which require medical intervention.

“Grade 3/4 injection reactions sound a lot worse than they are,” he wrote in an email. “We’re talking about redness, tenderness, and swelling at the injection site — that’s the side effect they’re citing.”

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Spokespersons for the CDC didn’t respond to emails seeking comment this week, but Feigl-Ding noted data isn’t even all that new.

According to the presentation slides, it’s from the old trials of the original COVID vaccines, not from newer versions of the shot.
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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.