Have More Military Personnel Died from COVID Vaccines than Disease Itself?

In the first six weeks it was available online, a video claiming as much garnered nearly 900,000 views.

  • Published
Person, Human, Bottle
Image via Getty Images
Snopes is still fighting an “infodemic” of rumors and misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, and you can help. Find out what we’ve learned and how to inoculate yourself against COVID-19 misinformation. Read the latest fact checks about the vaccines. Submit any questionable rumors and “advice” you encounter. Become a Founding Member to help us hire more fact-checkers. And, please, follow the CDC or WHO for guidance on protecting your community from the disease.

Key Facts:

  • There is no verifiable evidence that COVID-19 vaccines have killed, or will kill, more military personnel than the disease itself.
  • Dr. Lee Merritt, a self-described Navy surgeon, stated during an August 2021 lecture that based on the number of reported cases of myocarditis following vaccinations in the U.S. military, the vaccines have killed more young active duty personnel than COVID-19 has.
  • It is true that myocarditis has been recorded as a rare but potentially serious effect following the receipt of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine both in civilians and in military personnel. 
  • However, the likelihood of experiencing a serious case of myocarditis is low, and health experts say the benefits of vaccination outweigh the potential risks of infection. 
  • Furthermore, patients diagnosed with COVID-19 were 16 times more likely to develop the inflammatory condition than those without COVID-19 — a statistic health officials argue makes the case for getting vaccinated. 
  • As of this writing, more than 1.2 million service members had been fully vaccinated, and another 384,000 had received at least one dose. Of those enlisted in the military, 241,389 people have contracted COVID-19, resulting in 52 COVID-19-related deaths. 

In the weeks following a federal mandate requiring that U.S. military personnel receive a full regime of one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines, the internet was rife with misinformation surrounding the vaccines’ safety and efficacy. A YouTube video posted on Aug. 28, 2021, claimed that a Navy surgeon had sounded the alarm about the alleged dangers of the vaccine, asserting that the COVID-19 vaccine has killed more military personnel than the disease itself. 

“Navy surgeon has a warning. These numbers are in our military and very accurately tracked,” reads the video’s description. However, it does not state who the speaker is, the speaker’s affiliation, the date of the speech, or the event at which the speech took place. The video garnered nearly a half-million views in the first month it was available online. In addition, it was widely shared on social media with a caption declaring,  “The Vaccine Program has killed more active duty members than Covid19.” 

The video was posted just days after U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III issued a memorandum that mandated service members complete a regime of U.S.-approved COVID-19 vaccines. The speaker in question was identified by the social-video hosting website BitChute as Dr. Lee Merritt, an orthopedic surgeon affiliated with the fringe COVID-19 conspiracy theory group America’s Frontline Doctors (AFD). And the video was first published on Aug. 26, after Merritt was speaking at AFD’s one-year anniversary of the summit during a talk titled, “What is VAERS and What Does it Show?” (VAERS is the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System maintained by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.) In the two-minute clip, the speaker vaguely referenced the VAERS system but did not show data on screen nor provide specific sources for her information. 

We watched the entire 17-minute segment and transcribed the two-minute snippet shared to YouTube. This is what Merritt said about COVID-19 vaccines and the deaths of military personnel:

One of my big problems is our vaccination of the military. I’m a 10-year Navy surgeon and so I have Navy people and Army people calling me. There were only 20 deaths of all the active duty in 2020 for COVID. Twenty in all the services put together. They have a big now — that they didn’t have when I was in — they have a big epidemiologic base and they can find out exactly what’s going on. There were only 20 deaths.

We’re vaccinating everybody and we’ve already had tumors and we’ve had 80 cases of myocarditis, which I’m going to get to, but myocarditis has significant mortality — the 5 year mortality rate I think is 66%. So, with the vaccine program we have ostensibly killed more of our young active duty people than COVID did.

Merritt’s argument boils down to this: Based on the number of cases of myocarditis reported to VAERS following vaccinations in the U.S. military, the vaccines have killed more young active duty personnel than COVID-19 has. We’ll evaluate her claims below.

Who Is Dr. Lee Merritt?

Merritt is a licensed doctor in Nebraska whose LinkedIn profile described her as self-employed at Enlighten Omaha, a tattoo and hair removal facility. The online appointment booking platform Mindbody Online allowed users to book a “Lee Merritt” for services including “acne scar treatment” and hair removal. Before Enlighten Omaha, Merritt listed a five-year employment as an orthopedic and spinal surgeon at Stewart Memorial Community Hospital. (Her personal website, on the other hand, largely features misinformation about COVID-19 and a banner that points users to a message that reads, “where to get hydroxychloroquine.”) 

The only affiliation Snopes could find to link Merritt to the U.S. Navy was through her LinkedIn profile, which stated that Merritt attended a residency program for orthopedic surgery at a “Naval Hospital” in San Diego from 1983 to 1987. WebMD listed her education as a residency at the U.S. Naval Medical Center.

Snopes contacted the center to confirm whether Merritt had attended a residency program but did not hear back in time for publication. We also reached out to the Military Health System, the Navy, and the Department of Defense to determine whether Merritt was affiliated with any branch of the military and to confirm details of her speech. We did not hear back, but we did dig through the data. 

What is Myocarditis? 

Myocarditis is a condition characterized by the inflammation of the heart while pericarditis, on the other hand, is an inflammation of the outer lining of the heart. In both cases, inflammation is the immune system’s response to an infection or another trigger, according to a Sept. 6 statement issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Though it is rare, evidence suggests that there is a likely causal association between myocarditis and mRNA vaccines. The presence of a viral infection in the body is a common cause of myocarditis and such introductions can be made through vaccines. The CDC said it is actively monitoring reports of myocarditis and pericarditis after COVID-19 vaccination, and in August 2021, the agency released data that showed a small increase in cases of myocarditis after people received the Pfizer and Moderna two-dose mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, especially in young adults and most often after the second dose. Cases usually presented within several days after vaccination but were mild and resolved on their own.

Merritt’s claims about myocarditis and its alleged relationship to vaccine deaths hold little merit, are purely speculative, and largely flawed. Here’s why.

In an analysis of data from nearly 900 hospitals, the CDC found that myocarditis in-patient encounters were 42.3% higher in 2020 than in 2019 — but not because of the vaccine. Data released in early September showed that between March 2020 and January 2021, patients who contracted COVID-19 had nearly 16 times the risk for myocarditis when compared with those who had not been diagnosed with the condition, a statistic that health officials say highlights the importance of vaccines to prevent illness. 

“During March 2020 – January 2021, the period that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, the risk for myocarditis was 0.146% among patients diagnosed with COVID-19 during an inpatient or hospital-based outpatient encounter and 0.009% among patients who were not diagnosed with COVID-19,” wrote the health agency. 

“Overall, myocarditis was uncommon among persons with and without COVID-19; however, COVID-19 was significantly associated with an increased risk for myocarditis, with risk varying by age group.” 

CDC

Reported Cases of Myocarditis in the Military

As of this writing, military officials have not responded to Snopes’ request for further data about the number of myocarditis cases reported from military vaccinations, and how many, if any, resulted directly in death. However, health experts note that though it is rare, myocarditis has been an observed side effect of some mRNA vaccines — including the two currently authorized in the U.S. for COVID-19 — with a majority of those cases observed in young males. 

The CDC notes that myocarditis has an overall incidence rate of about 40 cases per 1 million in vaccinated individuals. So, researchers writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reviewed medical records from 40 hospitals to identify cases of myocarditis following vaccination. Of the more than 2 million vaccinated individuals studied, 20 developed myocarditis and an additional 37 developed pericarditis within 3.5 days after being vaccinated. Among those, 32 people were admitted to a hospital with three in the intensive care unit. No deaths from either condition were reported. Their analysis confirmed the CDC pattern; however, the researchers noted that myocarditis cases are likely underreported, given a majority of people will not go to the hospital if they are not experiencing life-threatening conditions, or if they do not require treatment. 

Does that statistic also apply to the military? It’s possible. Another retroactive analysis published in JAMA studied myocarditis rates in the Military Health System between January and April 2021. Of more than 2.8 million doses administered to military personnel, researchers found a total of 23 males (22 serving in the military and one retired at the time of the study’s publication) with a median age of 25 sought medical attention within four days of their vaccine because they had “marked chest pain.” All received brief supportive care and recovered or were recovering at the time of the report. 

Military members may also be more at risk of developing myocarditis after vaccination given their demographic. The CDC noted that myocarditis after mRNA vaccines occurs with the highest frequency following a second vaccine dose administered to males between 12 and 29 years, a population that the Council on Foreign Affairs says largely makes up the armed services. 

It’s important to note that it has been established that mRNA vaccines, like those for smallpox and influenza, as well as traditional live viral vaccines, have a causal relationship with myocarditis and pericarditis. It’s been no secret that COVID-19 vaccines are among those linked. A briefing document by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from December 2020 recorded one case of myocardial infection that resulted in death, though it’s not known if that was a military member, following a vaccination of Corminaty (previously Pfizer-BioNTech). Moderna also reported an association from the vaccine and myocarditis.

In short, it is true that myocarditis has been recorded as a rare but potentially serious effect following the receipt of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.  However, the likelihood of experiencing a serious case is low and health experts recommend the benefits of vaccination outweigh the potential risks of infection. 

Tracking Merritt’s Claims

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) tracks COVID-19 vaccination and death rates in collaboration with the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, as well as the State Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At the time of this writing, the agencies reported that more than 1.2 million service members had been fully vaccinated and another 384,000 had received a partial dose. Of those enlisted in the military, 241,389 people had contracted COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic (data includes Active Duty, Reserve, and National Guard).

In her speech, Merritt stated that there were “only” 20 COVID-19 deaths “in all the services put together” in 2020. The DOD has reported that since the onset of the pandemic, 52 military personnel have died from COVID-19 (though that number nears 500 when factoring in civilians, dependents, and contractors affiliated with the department).

The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is a national early warning system established in 1990 to detect possible safety concerns with vaccines licensed in the U.S. Co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA, the system has been a source of contention since the onset of the pandemic in large part due to its inherent flaws. As we have previously reported, VAERS accepts reports of adverse events after vaccination, but it does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship between symptoms and a vaccine. It is simply a public reporting tool that anyone can contribute.

“VAERS collects data on any adverse event following vaccination, be it coincidental or truly caused by a vaccine. The report of an adverse event to VAERS is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event,” noted the Department of Health and Human Services.

To view potential deaths linked to any of the three COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the U.S., we searched through the VAERS system using the parameter of “purchased by” the military, which returned dozens of results.  (You can view the results by clicking this link, pressing the “I Agree” button at the bottom of the page, hit the “Results” tab, and then press the “Request Form” tab with the repopulated information).

Also, a search through the database specific to COVID-19 vaccine doses purchased by the military that resulted in death from myocarditis returned no results: 

Screengrab/VAERS

As we stated previously, many of these entries are rife with typos or factual incongruences that make them difficult if not impossible to independently verify against death reports. Take the entry below, for example. The vaccination date of an unnamed 75-year-old is listed as Dec. 30, 2020, but the date this alleged patient died occurred a month prior on Dec. 1. 

VAERS

In short, there is no way to verify the authenticity of the entries into the VAERS system. Though it is a violation of federal law to knowingly file a false VAERS report, we’ve seen similar unverifiable claims surface time and again

We are awaiting more specific answers from military officials and will update this page when we have more information. 

Sources:

Boehmer, Tegan K. “Association Between COVID-19 and Myocarditis Using Hospital-Based Administrative Data — United States, March 2020–January 2021.” MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 70, 2021. www.cdc.gov, https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7035e5.

“Association Between COVID-19 and Myocarditis Using Hospital-Based Administrative Data — United States, March 2020–January 2021.” MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 70, 2021. www.cdc.gov, https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7035e5.

CDC. “COVID-19 Vaccination.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 Feb. 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/safety/myocarditis.html.

“Coronavirus: DOD Response.” U.S. Department of Defense, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Spotlight/Coronavirus-DOD-Response/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

COVID-19 Subcommittee of the WHO Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS): Updated Guidance Regarding Myocarditis and Pericarditis Reported with COVID-19 MRNA Vaccines. https://www.who.int/news/item/09-07-2021-gacvs-guidance-myocarditis-pericarditis-covid-19-mrna-vaccines. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

Diaz, George A., et al. “Myocarditis and Pericarditis After Vaccination for COVID-19.” JAMA, vol. 326, no. 12, Sept. 2021, pp. 1210–12. Silverchair, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2021.13443.

“Did 45K People Die Within 3 Days of Getting COVID Vaccine?” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/45000-people-die-covid-19-vaccine/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

“Did a 2-Year-Old in Virginia Die After Getting COVID-19 Vaccination?” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/two-year-old-virginia-die-vaccine/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

Engler, Renata J. M., et al. “A Prospective Study of the Incidence of Myocarditis/Pericarditis and New Onset Cardiac Symptoms Following Smallpox and Influenza Vaccination.” PLOS ONE, vol. 10, no. 3, Mar. 2015, p. e0118283. PLoS Journals, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118283.

“Enlighten Omaha – Treatment for Tattoo Removal, Hair Removal, and More.” Enlighten Omaha, https://www.enlightenomaha.com/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

Kuntz, Jennifer, et al. “Myocarditis and Pericarditis Are Rare Following Live Viral Vaccinations in Adults.” Vaccine, vol. 36, no. 12, Mar. 2018, pp. 1524–27. ScienceDirect, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2018.02.030.

Lee Merritt, MD – What Is VAERS and What Does It Show? www.bitchute.com, https://www.bitchute.com/video/ka1gmtSkz1fM/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

www.bitchute.com, https://www.bitchute.com/video/ka1gmtSkz1fM/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

Montgomery, Jay, et al. “Myocarditis Following Immunization With MRNA COVID-19 Vaccines in Members of the US Military.” JAMA Cardiology, June 2021. Silverchair, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamacardio.2021.2833.

Navy Surgeon Sounds the Alarm. www.youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPkrU23DG5A. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

Nebraska DHHS: Division of Public Health. https://www.nebraska.gov/LISSearch/search.cgi?mode=details&lid=341726&hmac=e5CLG7bZyMKdX%2FSUM8YWfxXXS4Iorltq6UKd95z90Lg&stype=I. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

Saved Request: The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), D232F148. https://wonder.cdc.gov/controller/saved/D8/D232F148. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

“Secretary of Defense Mandates COVID-19 Vaccinations for Service Members.” U.S. Department of Defense, https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/2746111/secretary-of-defense-mandates-covid-19-vaccinations-for-service-members/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

See Experience for Dr. Lee Merritt, Orthopedic Surgery. https://doctor.webmd.com/doctor/7633384/lee-merritt-conditions-procedures. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

The Medical Rebel. https://drleemerritt.com/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

VAERS – Guide to Interpreting VAERS Data. https://vaers.hhs.gov/data/dataguide.html. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021

https://vaers.hhs.gov/data/dataguide.html. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.

“Who Are ‘America’s Frontline Doctors’ and Dr. Stella Immanuel?” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/news/2020/07/30/americas-frontline-doctors/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2021.