Officials should have been more forthcoming on investigation into woman’s death after vaccination

March 12, 2021 12:02 am

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver, flanked by Gov. Ralph Northam, left, and Secretary of Health Dr, Daniel Carey, right, at a news conference on Capitol Square in last year. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver assured me this week that the death of Drene Keyes of Gloucester, just a few hours after she got a COVID-19 vaccination, was properly investigated by the state — even if there wasn’t a full autopsy.

“When a medical examiner takes on a case, it’s not an autopsy versus nothing,” he cautioned.

Oliver’s explanation would’ve been better received had it come sooner. The various statements emanating from the Virginia Department of Health since Keyes’ death on Jan. 30 have allowed fear and mistrust to fester about the state’s vaccination program.

Some suspicion about the vaccines is understandable, if unwarranted. Relatively few complications have been reported nationwide or in the commonwealth given the millions of folks who have received the injections.

So why has the state bungled the explanation of what happened to Keyes? Were officials too invested in a reassuring spin instead of telling Virginians just the facts?

An assistant medical examiner physically examined Keyes’ body, Oliver told me, at an agency office following the death of the 58-year-old woman. In the “rare cases” someone has died from the vaccine, he said, it’s been due to anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction.

The office tested for an enzyme called tryptase, whose levels become markedly higher if anaphylaxis has occurred. Bloodwork was sent off; the tryptase levels were near normal.

The state eventually determined Keyes, a minister, died of complications of COVID-19 — Oliver wasn’t sure if Keyes knew she had it — and hypertensive cardiovascular disease. Previous reporting also noted she was obese and diabetic.

Oliver and other state officials should’ve relayed what they knew sooner. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to question why the state declined to look at Keyes’ internal organs through an autopsy, as her relatives had requested and eventually carried out themselves.

We’re not all doctors. We don’t know the usual procedures in cases like this.

I wondered whether the state had taken a “head-in-the-sand” approach, as if it feared an autopsy might uncover a possible link between the vaccine and the woman’s death. You can acknowledge the vaccine is generally safe, yet in extremely unique circumstances could result in tragedy.

Keyes got the first dose of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine in the town of Warsaw. Health-care providers observed her for 15-20 minutes, but then she had trouble breathing and vomited. A medic gave her epinephrine shots in her leg and arm and medicine through an oxygen mask, The Virginian-Pilot reported. She was taken to VCU Tappahannock Hospital, where she died. The state and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said they were investigating.

“They’re looking for patterns, they’re looking for a causation versus just a correlation based on time,” Dr. Danny Avula, Virginia’s vaccine coordinator, said within days of the incident.

A more recent article, however, indicated how the state revised its explanations. Oliver told public information officers in an email Feb. 5 that if reporters asked whether an autopsy was done, they should say “a full autopsy was not needed in order to ascertain whether the death was related to the vaccination,” The Pilot reported.

Oliver later told The Pilot he misspoke in the email. He said the preliminary findings didn’t indicate Keyes had anaphylaxis, which he also told me.

“You don’t need to do a full autopsy to tell if someone has had an anaphylaxis reaction,” he said this week.

But as The Pilot noted, a public records request it filed also discovered state officials were concerned that the death of Keyes, who is Black, could make it tougher to vaccinate minorities who already were hesitant.

Her relatives eventually sought a private autopsy. Her daughter, Lisa Jones, told me by email Thursday that their preliminary autopsy results were negative for COVID, but final results won’t be available for a few weeks. She declined a longer interview.

This latest explanation by the state won’t eliminate the second-guessing and reluctance, among some people at least, about taking the federally approved vaccines. Yet the vast and overwhelming majority of Americans who have gotten the shots haven’t suffered serious side effects, according to U.S. health officials and news accounts.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that more than 62 million people have so far received one or both doses of the vaccines in the United States, and that nearly 10 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. More than 1.6 million people in Virginia have received at least one dose, including more than 916,000 who are fully vaccinated, the state Health Department said.

Around 1,000 people have died nationwide after getting a vaccine, according to Newsweek and other reports. That doesn’t mean, though, that the vaccine caused the death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that serious reactions to the injections are reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

And even then, 1,000 is a small percentage of 62 million.

A state Health Department spokesperson told me that, as of Feb. 26, 535 reports of an “adverse event” after a COVID-19 vaccination in Virginia had been filed with VAERS. Of that total, 26 included deaths. The spokesperson also said there’s no time limit between getting the vaccine and reporting the event to VAERS.

The CDC adds: “To date, VAERS has not detected patterns in cause of death that would indicate a safety problem with COVID-19 vaccines.”

A majority of Black Americans, 61 percent, now say they plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine or already have received one, up from 42 percent who said they planned to get vaccinated in November, according to a Pew Research survey released last week.

All of this means state officials, following the death of Drene Keyes, caused more alarm and suspicion than necessary. The incident should be a teachable moment, for the Health Department and Virginians alike.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]