(WXYZ) — Macomb County Medical Examiner Dr. Mary Pietrangelo has been getting a lot of questions about a case she reviewed this month: the death of a 90-year-old.
"He has the morbidities that would predispose him to sudden death," said Pietrangelo.
While that case wouldn’t normally grab headlines, because the man passed away hours after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine it did.
"His physician agreed to sign the death certificate — it’s certainly not under further investigation by our office, except for the fact that it’s reportable obviously," she said.
The death was one of 35 in the state reported so far to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). A “passive” reporting system, where people can submit post-vaccination reactions.
But even if something is reportable to that system, experts say that doesn’t mean we should be alarmed.
"If you start looking at where the deaths are occurring post-vaccination you find that they’re mainly in nursing homes," said Dr. Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology and global public health at the University of Michigan.
Of the 35 Michigan deaths reported in VAERS almost half involved people who were vaccinated at a senior living facility. More than one-third of the group was over the age of 80 or older.
"If you’re vaccinating young individuals as a priority then you might be concerned with seeing that frequency of deaths — even though it’s low," said Monto. "But in the context of who is getting vaccinated that is something you would expect to see."
The epidemiologist also stresses that on top of the age factor, there is also the reporting factor.
"VAERS is a list of cries of alarm," he said, stressing that it's important to take submissions with a grain of salt.
The database allows any individual to submit an incident, even if the correlation between an outcome and a vaccine is not verified.
In one case reviewed by 7 Action News, for example, a 91-year-old with a history of falling took a tumble the day she was vaccinated and then died 8 days later. It still showed up as a post-vaccine “death” in the database.
"People are going to die and they’re going to blame the vaccine," said Monto explaining that while vaccinating the elderly is viewed as a critical first step in stopping COVID-19, some of his colleagues were concerned that starting with such a vulnerable population could affect public perception of the vaccine.
"What you have to do is compare what goes on in the unvaccinated with the vaccinated," he said.
So far in Michigan 1.2M people have received at least one dose of the vaccine. If the 35 deaths listed in VAERS could be traced to the vaccine — which they cannot — that would still be a 0.002% chance of death. The statewide fatality rate from COVID-19, on the other hand, is nearly 3%. And it spikes to 16% for those who are 70 and older.
As of this week, over 11% of Michigan's population has received their first dose of the vaccine.
"The information is being collected, the statistics are being collected and the CDC has not found any signal that there is a problem with vaccine safety," said Pietrangelo.