How a Rare Myocarditis Death Caught the Attention of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Before he received his second shot of a Covid-19 vaccine, there was little reason to think that George Watts Jr. was about to die.

He was 24 and showed no obvious health problems. His family said he lived cautiously. He spent most of his time playing video games in his room at his parents’ house in Elmira, a city in south-central New York.

That is where he was when he collapsed on Oct. 27, 2021.

George Jr.’s mother, Kathy, called 911 and started C.P.R. Paramedics rushed him to the emergency room, where doctors pronounced him dead.

What happened?

To the family, the answer was instantly obvious. “I blame that damn Covid vaccine,” Ms. Watts said in the hospital’s waiting room after learning her son had died, according to her husband, George Watts Sr.

The medical examiner at a New York hospital reached a similar conclusion, adding more specifics: The cause of death, he wrote, was “Covid-19 vaccine-related myocarditis,” an uncommon and often mild condition involving inflammation of the heart. It can develop when the body battles viruses, responds to certain vaccines, or nearly a dozen other reasons. Multiple studies say the condition can develop in some people, particularly young men, who receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

Before long, news of George Jr.’s death ricocheted around the internet, transforming the family’s tragedy into a powerful anecdote inside anti-vaccine communities. It was shared as an urgent warning about vaccine dangers on online forums, podcasts and Facebook groups. The Children’s Health Defense, the nonprofit founded by the anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., contacted the Watts family and solicited donations for the organization off their name.

To vaccine opponents, George Jr.’s case delivered an unambiguous life-or-death warning: Don’t believe what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells you. Vaccines can kill, and here was all the proof anyone needed.

As those claims spread online, many medical experts started raising questions about the story. Myocarditis could have been the culprit, they said, but it was difficult to conclude that the vaccine was the cause — especially without further examination of George Jr.’s body. That is now impossible. His body was cremated.

The C.D.C. received specimens from George Jr.’s autopsy and is finalizing a pathology report, according to the New York State Department of Health. The agency has not released any information publicly, citing privacy concerns.

Those outstanding questions, however, have not stopped activists, radio hosts and disinformation peddlers from declaring unambiguously that George Jr.’s death resulted from his Covid-19 vaccination, and painted myocarditis as an automatic death sentence instead of a typically mild condition. And they are reaching a growing audience.

The New York Times conducted dozens of interviews over several months for this article — including with the Watts family; the coroner’s office in Bradford County, Pa., which reviewed the case; and myocarditis experts, pathologists, lawyers and doctors who have reviewed details about George Jr.’s case.

When George Sr. talks about his son, a few things stand out. George Jr. was an avowed homebody, spending so much time at home that he planned to live there forever. He was so careful that he cringed at the thought of running a yellow light in the car.

He hoped to transform his passion for video games into a career by enrolling in community college in nearby Corning for computer science. The pandemic derailed much of his campus experience, and his grades were slipping heading into his last semester because of remote learning. He thought getting back to the classroom could turn things around.

But first, he needed to be vaccinated — a requirement for students at the school, run by the State University of New York.

His parents did not trust the vaccine. George Sr. believed it had been developed too quickly.

George Jr. had avoided the vaccine earlier in 2021 when it had received emergency-use authorization. He received his first dose on Aug. 27, 2021, four days after the Food and Drug Administration gave it its full approval.

Shortly after receiving his second dose, on Sept. 17, George Jr. started feeling pain in his heels, according to medical records and his father’s account. By early October, his fingers started going numb, and he had difficulty holding onto objects.

By mid-October, his father was so concerned that he drove him to the emergency room. Among other things, George Jr. had the markers of an upper respiratory infection: sinus congestion, a sore throat and a cough. An X-ray showed no abnormalities or fluid in his lungs, according to a summary of the visit from the coroner’s report. He said he didn’t have chest pain or shortness of breath, according to the coroner’s investigation, two common symptoms among myocarditis patients.

Doctors diagnosed him with a sinus infection and bronchitis and prescribed antibiotics. He also started taking NyQuil.

A week later, George Jr. was rushed back to the emergency room after coughing so much that he started vomiting. Doctors found no obvious lung problems, his heart wasn’t enlarged, and there were no signs of cardiac issues, according to the coroner’s report.

If there were clear signs of myocarditis, doctors would most likely have monitored George Jr. and prescribed drugs, like blood pressure medications, beta blockers or corticosteroids.

Eight days after his emergency room visit, George Jr. collapsed and died. His body was transported 40 minutes east, to Binghamton, for an autopsy at Lourdes Hospital.

The medical examiner at Lourdes found that the heart muscle, the myocardium, was losing some of its strength and sagging. Parts of the heart, when examined under a microscope, were inflamed. Both are clues that point toward myocarditis.

Soon after the government authorized Covid vaccines for the public, myocarditis became a flashpoint for health officials and vaccine opponents.

Myocarditis sometimes interferes with the heart’s function, interrupting electrical signals and causing chest pain, an irregular heartbeat and, in extremely rare cases, cardiac arrest.

It is well established that the mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna slightly increase the risk of developing myocarditis, especially in young men who receive two or more doses. The overall numbers are small — there were 224 verified cases of myocarditis among vaccinated children and young adults in the United States from late 2020 to mid-2022, out of the nearly seven million vaccine doses that were administered, according to one study. Most patients recover from the condition after at least 90 days, according to another study published in late 2022.

Doctors concluded the benefits from getting vaccinated far outweighed the risks. Their views were supported by the finding that myocarditis was significantly more likely to develop after a Covid-19 infection than from the vaccine, according to a report from 2021.

Deaths tied to the vaccine are extremely rare. Worldwide, there are a few known myocarditis deaths among vaccinated individuals, among hundreds of millions who received a shot.

Partly in response to myocarditis risks, the C.D.C. has changed its guidelines, increasing the amount of time boys and men from 12 to 39 years old should wait between their first and second vaccine dose — eight weeks, up from three to four weeks.

Yet the agency also continues to say that no one has died from Covid-19 vaccine-related myocarditis.

Almost as soon as Covid vaccines were approved in Washington, concerns about myocarditis started fueling claims from anti-vaccine activists. Fears that the vaccine would kill scores of Americans trended repeatedly on social media under the ominous hashtag #DiedSuddenly.

Prominent celebrity deaths helped the idea gain traction. Vaccine opponents said Lisa Marie Presley died in January from myocarditis after getting vaccinated, though an autopsy later found she died of a bowel obstruction. The deaths of Bob Saget and Betty White, two actors, and DMX, a rapper, spurred similar claims. None of those deaths were linked to the Covid vaccine.

Elon Musk, the owner of X, also suggested vaccine-related myocarditis was to blame after Bronny James, a son of the basketball star LeBron James, fell ill in July. Doctors later pointed to Mr. James’s congenital heart defect as the culprit.

Yet in the case of George Jr.’s death, vaccine opponents had one piece of concrete evidence: a death certificate that placed the blame squarely on the vaccine.

After his son’s death, George Sr. turned to Facebook, broadcasting details about his son’s story and posting images of the coroner’s report. His language was so forceful that Facebook temporarily limited his ability to post.

“I want to say how much I love and miss my son George J everyday that goes by it hurts us even more,” he wrote on Facebook. “I would give up my soul to get him back, that is what I’m willing to give up my afterlife just to have him here again.”

Noticing that George Jr.’s story could yield some political influence, a collection of anti-vaccine influencers sought out the Watts family, introducing them to large platforms and even larger goals.

Shannon Joy, a radio and podcast host in Rochester, brought George Sr. onto her show for an hourlong interview in which they both shared concerns about vaccines.

“It is so hard for people to stand up and tell their stories of people who were maimed and tragically killed by Covid-19 vaccines,” Ms. Joy said during the show. “But we need to see the people. We need to hear their stories.”

In her mind, George Jr.’s case “got to the truth” about vaccines despite pushback from mysterious forces.

Children’s Health Defense, the group founded by Mr. Kennedy, approached the Watts family, kick-starting a relationship that resulted in a long-shot lawsuit brought by the Watts family and C.H.D. against the Defense Department, which had overseen the vaccine’s development under Operation Warp Speed. The lawsuit claimed the department had used George Jr. as “an unwitting guinea pig” in a “mass human experiment.” The group also started fund-raising in George Jr.’s name. (The Defense Department filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in September.)

Ms. Joy had also informed George Sr. about a website that showed that George Jr.’s vaccine batch was “toxic,” a claim that was based on misleading data. Soon he learned a lot more about Covid-19 conspiracy theories.

His wife, Kathy, shared a TikTok video with him claiming that Covid-19 is caused by snake venom — a conspiracy theory that was gaining popularity at the time.

“It affects the heart,” he said in an interview with The New York Times last year at a hotel restaurant in Elmira, near the prison where he works as a guard. “And then they put it in the vaccines and they’re putting it in water you drink.”

He also heard that hospitals were trying to euthanize Covid-19 patients by putting them on ventilators.

“Do I believe that? I don’t know,” he said. “You don’t know what to believe anymore.”

As claims about George Jr.’s death spread online, they made their way into the medical community and provoked questions among doctors who doubted the simple explanation offered by the medical examiner.

What stood out to several doctors was what happened in the rest of George Jr.’s body. Some said it raised more questions about his cause of death.

When George Jr.’s spleen was removed during autopsy, the medical examiner found it remarkably enlarged. It weighed 1,350 grams. A typical spleen weighs around 200 grams. This can happen if the body is showing symptoms of heart failure for months. But the examiner gave no explanation.

His kidney was also damaged, showing both inflammation and dead tissue. His lungs showed late-stage pneumonia. His brain showed chronic inflammation.

“It’s like the whole immune system was just revved up everywhere,” said Dr. James Gill, the chief medical examiner for Connecticut and former president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, who wrote a paper exploring two other deaths he linked to Covid-19 vaccine-related myocarditis and reviewed details about the case.

Even more alarming was the condition of George Jr.’s prostate gland, which was yellow in places and partially necrotic, meaning partially dead. That could explain the blood found in his urine during his emergency room visits.

Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a pediatrician from nearby Rochester who heard George Jr.’s story circulating in the local medical community, was skeptical about the medical examiner’s conclusions. If he “is going to say myocarditis due to the vaccine, then why isn’t he also saying kidney damage due to the vaccine? And lung damage and brain damage and prostate damage due to the vaccine?” she said. “None of that was listed.”

The Lourdes Hospital medical examiner’s office said it did not comment on cases. Since the C.D.C. has not publicized any details of George Jr.’s case, the coroner’s report and autopsy records are the best synopsis of his case.

“I would have no problem putting myocarditis on the death certificate as the cause of death,” said Dr. Mary Jumbelic, a retired forensic pathologist and former chief medical examiner of Onondaga County, N.Y., who agreed to review details about the case. “But the leap here is the conclusion that it’s vaccine-related.”

The report being prepared by the C.D.C. could shed more light on George Jr.’s death. If they agree with the medical examiner, George Jr.’s death could become the first that the department has tied to vaccine-related myocarditis in the United States. If they disagree, it could offer more clarity about what happened to George Jr.

George Sr. said he would find no comfort in any new details that would point to causes other than the vaccine.

“I still got the reports that tell otherwise,” he said. “They’re not going to come knock on my door and try to take it from me. I won’t let that happen.”

Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.

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