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Sonoma County officials, social media posters spar over boy’s death

The “manner of death” in the June 7 coroner’s report was listed as undetermined. But for those already suspicious of coronavirus vaccines and the government’s endorsement of them, the wording in the document was an alarm bell.

A 15-year-old Santa Rosa boy had died within 48 hours of getting his second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Details of his death and questions of a possible connection to the vaccinations erupted this week on social media sites, especially those hostile to pandemic-related health orders.

Despite the uproar, Sonoma County officials insist there is no proven link between the vaccination and the boy’s death.

“It’s a very sad and perplexing case, and our concern – and that of the family — is that the anti-vax community would misrepresent the facts in this case,” county spokesman Paul Gullixson said Tuesday. “The only reason that the vaccination was mentioned in the synopsis, and the only correlation to the death, was the timing.”

County health officer Dr. Sundari Mase acknowledged there have been demonstrated cases of blood clots in a small percentage of Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients, and an even smaller set of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) reactions in young people.

“But in this case,” she said, “CDC found no relationship between the vaccine and the death.”

The Press Democrat is not identifying the 15-year-old boy out of respect for his family and his parents’ request for privacy.

If some are citing this incident as a warning against vaccination, the grieving parents are not.

“We feel strongly that everyone should have their children vaccinated,” they wrote to The Press Democrat in an email, noting that it will serve as their only public statement.

“We believe vaccines are safe and effective. Families should recognize that complicating factors can occur with any vaccine and, because of that, we encourage parents to closely monitor their children following vaccination regardless if they have symptoms or not.”

The parents asked for room to grieve, adding they are grateful for the sympathy and support they have received in the wake of their loss.

“We ask that the media respect our family’s privacy during this time,” their statement said.

Sonoma County joined the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the federal Centers for Disease Control in a detailed investigation of the Santa Rosa case. The analysis was completed in late September.

“The investigation process was thorough and deliberative and CDPH supports the final findings by the Sonoma County coroner’s office,” a state representative said. “No direct link between this death and the vaccine has been established.”

CDC health officials could not be reached Tuesday for comment about the case.

The flashpoint of the controversy was the original coroner’s report, filed for Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick’s office, in which forensic pathologist Dr. Kimi Verilhac describes the death of a 15-year-old boy in north Santa Rosa.

This one-page report on the death of a 15-year-old boy has been circulating online by people who are questioning whether his death was related to the COVID-19 vaccine. (Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office)
This one-page report on the death of a 15-year-old boy has been circulating online by people who are questioning whether his death was related to the COVID-19 vaccine. (Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office)

When Santa Rosa police arrived at the teen’s home, they found him unresponsive in his bedroom.

“The decedent had been in good health with no medical history and had received his second Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccination approximately two days before his death,” Verilhac wrote.

The doctor determined the cause of death to be “stress cardiomyopathy with perivascular coronary artery inflammation, due to unknown etiology in setting of recent Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination.” Verilhac then stated that, “There were no other significant conditions contributing to the death listed.”

Stress cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome or takotsubo syndrome, occurs when a person’s heart muscle is rapidly weakened by sudden, acute stress, according to Dr. Ilan Wittstein’s description on the Johns Hopkins website.

The stress, which can be emotional or physical, produces a massive flow of adrenaline that narrows the small arteries supplying the heart with blood, or binds directly to heart cells, resulting in a harmful intake of calcium.

The condition is frequently reversible. In this case, for whatever reason, it was not.

A screenshot of the document eventually made its way to the Twitter account of Reopen California Schools, a group that fought against remote learning and has recently turned its attention to mask and vaccine mandates.

The group posted the image Monday night, with the boy’s name and address blacked out.

The boy’s death was entered into the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a database — co-managed by the CDC and U.S. Food and Drug Administration — that logs negative reactions to all immunizations administered in the United States.

It’s a “passive” reporting system that relies on individuals to send reports of their experiences.

The 15-year-old’s entry listed no known allergies, disabilities or medications. It mentioned the boy’s first vaccine shot, on May 15, but not his second.

According to the CDC, it is generally not possible to find out from the database if a vaccine truly caused an adverse event.

Also, while the database can be useful as an early-warning system, reports submitted to it are often vague and contain errors, the CDC said.

Mase said the vaccine database likely contains hundreds of thousands of reports of adverse vaccine reactions.

“Let me make this really clear, VAERS is just where you make a report that something happened,” Mase said. “Then CDC looks at the database and makes the determination from the reporting what is significant and they want to follow up on, and what they don’t.”

Meanwhile, county health officials on Tuesday reported four additional deaths in Sonoma County linked to COVID-19 complications, bringing the pandemic total to 390.

All four had underlying health problems, officials said.

The latest fatalities include an unvaccinated woman 20 to 30 who died Aug. 13 at home; an unvaccinated man, 60 to 70, who died Aug. 30 after being hospitalized; an unvaccinated woman, 80 to 90, who died Sept. 11 in local hospital; and a vaccinated woman, 80 to 90, who also died in a local hospital Sept. 18.

The 15-year-old will not appear in the county’s COVID accounting, because his death could not conclusively be linked to the virus.

Stress cardiomyopathy appears to be exceedingly rare in relation to coronavirus vaccinations, but not unheard of.

State health officials say the agency has received reports of six Californians in the 65-and-older age group who experienced the syndrome after vaccination. No direct link could be determined, the department said.

In a recent edition of the American Journal of Therapeutics, nine Boston-area doctors and medical students signed a report describing a 65-year-old woman who had experienced stress cardiomyopathy a few days after getting her first dose of Moderna.

“Vaccination was left as the most significant event preceding her presentation,” the doctors wrote.

“It is impossible from a single case to prove causality. However, the fact that this occurred in a relatively small sample, so soon after we began vaccinating, and that the patient had no other discernible precipitating factors for takotsubo cardiomyopathy is suggestive.”

Yet, their ultimate conclusion was that, overall, the balance of risks strongly favors getting vaccinated. The California health department agrees, and, so does Mase.

“I think we need to be clear, the science and the data show conclusively that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective,” she said.

“They have already saved many, many lives, including those of young people. So our goal in public health is to ensure that we get as many people vaccinated as they become eligible for the vaccine, and this is really our best strategy to get back to normalcy.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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