Premier League: Fear and lies fill COVID-19 vaccination gap

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by Tariq Panja and Rory Smith

The report spread like wildfire. Premier League players have shared the bond among their peers. Some passed it on to family members and closest confidants. A handful were troubled enough by what he seemed to suggest that they introduced him to their clubs’ internal medical teams, seeking advice.

It was produced by a website that says it tracks the number of “young athletes who had major medical problems in 2021 after receiving one or more COVID vaccines.” The report claimed to list 19 “athletes” – mostly in the United States – who it said had suffered heart attacks after being vaccinated. Some of the attacks, the site worryingly noted, had been fatal.

Almost immediately, doctors and others spotted the glaring flaws in the research. One of the examples cited was Hall of Fame baseball player Hank Aaron who died in January. He was 86 years old. Another name on the list, a former NBA player, was 64. The most sketchy research showed that many young athletes also had underlying issues that were documented.

But it didn’t matter. Nor the fact that the report was subsequently and completely debunked. This had made footballers wonder if they should agree to be vaccinated. The damage, at least in the opinion of medical experts, had been done.

These are not easy weeks for the Premier League, which is suffering a wave of virus cases, a glut of postponements and calls even from within its ranks to take at least a temporary break in the season. These issues have placed his delayed vaccination record under close scrutiny and prompted questions about why the world’s richest league has struggled so hard to convince its stars to get vaccinated.

On the one hand, the league and its teams have enjoyed considerable success: the Premier League has released figures suggesting that 84% of its stars are on their ‘vaccination journey’, meaning they have had at least one of the three potential shots since they became eligible. in spring. The remaining 16%, however – around 100 players – have become a source of concern.

Six of the 10 Premier League games that were due to be played last weekend have been postponed after clubs were hit by COVID outbreaks. At least one of those matches was said to have been called off not because of a series of positive tests, but because a number of unvaccinated players self-isolated, as required by UK law, after being identified as close contacts of a confirmed case.

The lost weekend highlighted the Premier League’s struggle to keep its vaccination numbers on par with the rest of major European domestic competitions and other big leagues around the world.

Serie A, the Italian elite, has vaccinated 98% of its players. In France, the figure stands at 95% and in Germany at 94%, figures comparable to those of the NFL, NBA and NHL in North America. Spanish football authorities have indicated that, taking into account both vaccination and naturally acquired immunity, 97% of players are fully covered. The comparison with England is therefore striking: in the Premier League, only 77% of players have had two vaccines.

Establishing the reason for this discrepancy is not easy. The New York Times spoke to a range of gamers, advisers, executives, officials and medical staff, most on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss private health matters. These interviews painted a complex and unfinished picture of why vaccine reluctance has been allowed to become so mainstreamed into the world’s richest football league.

“It’s hard to say that there is one thing,” said Maheta Molango, managing director of the Professional Footballers’ Association, the union of British players. “It’s really on a case-by-case basis.

Concerns about possible side effects have certainly become very widespread. A series of recent and high-profile incidents involving players with heart problems on the pitch – including Christian Eriksen, the Danish midfielder who collapsed during the European Championship last summer, and Sergio Agüero, the Barcelona striker who has just retired – has fueled suspicion about the vaccines among some players.

That Eriksen was not vaccinated when he collapsed on a pitch during the Euro in June made little difference.

But incidents involving others are far from the only source of skepticism. Several players have expressed concern that the vaccine may lower their sperm count, according to a report from The Times, and a number of doctors have revealed that they have faced questions about the links to a decrease in sperm count. manhood, especially after musician Nicki Minaj tweeted that a family friend suffered from “bloat”. testes ”following the vaccine. (Both theories are baseless.)

Molango suggested that some players may have “concerns about religion” as well. Earlier this year, the PFA and the Premier League called on Jonathan Van Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer – who has regularly used football-themed metaphors in his public statements – to address the captains of the 20 clubs in the league in order to encourage more players to vaccinate.

During the meeting, he was asked if it was true that the vaccines contained alcohol – a concern for Muslim players. He confirmed that the Pfizer-BioNTech shot was alcohol-free, but acknowledged that others may contain traces. But the amounts were so minuscule, he told the captains, that “there was probably more alcohol in the bread you ate this morning.”

Others have “questions about the credibility” of those who encourage them to get the vaccine, Molango said. Some players have also noted that it was deemed safe for them to return to work last year, before vaccines were developed, and that they now don’t appreciate being told to get the shot to continue. to play.

In some cases, this has crystallized into something more relentless: an ideological refusal to be shot. Most players, however, are more hesitant than opposed, said team workers – inclined to think that as healthy young men they won’t suffer even if they contract the virus and don’t. ‘therefore do not need to take the slightest risk that there may or may not be. a vaccine. Their bodies are their livelihood, after all, and many have told medical staff at their clubs that they won’t take anything that is not irrefutably safe.

The Premier League claim they have done everything they could reasonably do to persuade their players to accept the vaccines. Van Tam not only spoke to club captains in the league, but also posted a video, highlighting the importance of vaccination and dispelling myths, to reinforce the message. He visited teams in person. Other clubs, struggling to persuade their dissenters to get vaccinated, have been offered tours of experts keen to answer questions and allay fears.

Internal measures are also increasingly stringent. At least one Premier League club are no longer allowing unvaccinated players to dine with their teammates and require them to don their training gear before arriving or in their cars. The Premier League is now considering adapting its protocols to generalize similar precautions.

The hope, among those charged with ensuring the safety of the players, is that a more active and draconian position will prove decisive among all, except for a few ardent resistance fighters. Until then, all the league can do is try to counter the misinformation, change all minds, and hope the games can continue.


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