Fact Check: Aaron Rodgers' Inaccurate COVID-19 Claims

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Fact Check: Aaron Rodgers' Inaccurate COVID-19 Claims originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Aaron Rodgers, the star quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, made headlines when he contracted COVID-19 and then defended his decision not to get vaccinated with a string of false and misleading claims that fact-checkers have frequently debunked.

The public learned on Nov. 3 that not only did Rodgers have COVID-19, but he also was unvaccinated — despite telling reporters in August that he was “immunized” against COVID-19. When asked if he was vaccinated at a press availability on Aug. 26, Rodgers said, “Yeah, I’ve been immunized. … There’s guys on the team that haven’t been vaccinated. I think it’s a personal decision. I’m not going to judge those guys.”

Because Rodgers had COVID-19 and had not been vaccinated, the three-time NFL MVP had to self-isolate for 10 days before he could play — leaving his team without its star QB in Sunday’s loss to Kansas City.

In a Nov. 5 interview on “The Pat McAfee Show,” Rodgers criticized the NFL protocols and launched a fusillade of inaccurate statements about COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

During the interview, Rodgers drew a distinction between vaccination and immunization, saying that he had not lied about being vaccinated because he had been “immunized” via a homeopathy protocol.

He did not provide details of the protocol, but there is no way to have immunity to the coronavirus without either being previously infected or being vaccinated. Homeopathy is form of alternative medicine for which there is little evidence of effectiveness for any health condition, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Four days later, he returned to the show and acknowledged that he “misled some people about my [vaccination] status” — but added, “I stand behind the things that I said.”

“Look, I shared an opinion that is polarizing, I get it, and I misled some people about my status, which I take full responsibility of, those comments,” Rodgers said Nov. 9 on McAfee’s show. “But in the end, I have to stay true to who I am and what I’m about, and I stand behind the things that I said.”

Here we review his statements and what we have written about such claims before.

Unvaccinated More Likely to Contract COVID-19, Have Severe Cases

In the month of August, during which the delta variant accounted for nearly all infections, unvaccinated people were 6.1 times more likely to test positive for infection with the coronavirus and 11.3 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the fully vaccinated, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures. Yet Rodgers falsely claimed: “This idea that it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated, it’s just a total lie.”

Some data also suggest that vaccinated people who do get breakthrough infections are less likely to transmit the coronavirus than those who are unvaccinated. And having more unvaccinated people in a population leads to more virus transmission. 

“The greater the number of unvaccinated people in a community, the more opportunity germs have to spread. This means outbreaks are more difficult to stem and everyone is at greater risk of exposure — including vaccinated people,” the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explained in a 2017 article on vaccines.

No Vaccine Is 100% Effective

While studies have shown the COVID-19 vaccines in use in the United States are highly effective in preventing symptomatic disease, they are not 100% effective. Some cases, hospitalizations and even deaths are expected among vaccinated individuals. But Rodgers questioned how the vaccines could be “so great” if breakthrough infections are occurring.

“If the vaccine is so great, then how come people are still getting COVID and spreading COVID and, unfortunately, dying from COVID?” he said.

As we said, the data on COVID-19 infections in the U.S. show the risks of getting the disease and dying from it are higher among the unvaccinated. And studies show that while the effectiveness of the vaccines against infection has dropped a bit with the delta variant, the vaccines still offer robust protection. For instance, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in late July by U.K. researchers found that the two-dose Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was 88% effective in preventing symptomatic disease against delta.

Ivermectin Not Shown to Be Effective Against COVID-19

Rodgers said he was taking the antiparasitic drug ivermectin, touting a medicine that hasn’t been shown to benefit patients with COVID-19. He wrongly said medicines being tested by Merck and Pfizer were “expensive versions of ivermectin,” suggesting pharmaceutical companies were against using ivermectin because they couldn’t make much profit from it.

“Merck’s coming out with a pill. You know, Pfizer’s coming out with a pill that’s going to help. You know, it’s basically the expensive versions of ivermectin. Why do people hate ivermectin? Not just because [former President Donald] Trump championed it, because it’s a cheap generic. You can’t make any money off of it,” Rodgers said.

As we’ve written, the National Institutes of Health counts over 70 studies on the safety and effectiveness of ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19 in humans, but the data on the drug hasn’t been conclusive. Multiple large trials are continuing to assess it. Health officials have warned people not to self-medicate and not to ingest ivermectin intended for livestock, which comes in doses that can be toxic for humans. Ivermectin for humans has been approved only to treat some conditions caused by parasites, such as intestinal strongyloidiasis and onchocerciasis, head lice, and skin conditions.

One large, randomized trial didn’t find a benefit to using ivermectin for high-risk nonhospitalized adults, but it did find benefits in the use of another inexpensive drug, the antidepressant fluvoxamine, undercutting Rodgers’ suggestion that profit motives doom cheap medications for COVID-19.

Pfizer and Merck have announced positive trial results for easy-to-take pills to combat the disease, but the antiviral medications are very different from ivermectin, contrary to Rodgers’ false claim, which has been circulating on social media.

And More Unproven Treatments

As we’ve explained, there is no cure for COVID-19, and only a few, evidence-based treatments are available. 

Rodgers said he was taking several medications or vitamins, only one of which is an FDA-authorized treatment for COVID-19. “I’ve been taking monoclonal antibodies, ivermectin, zinc, vitamin C and D, HCQ, and I feel pretty incredible,” he said.

Based on the findings of randomized controlled trials, the FDA has authorized the use of several monoclonal antibodies that target SARS-CoV-2 for patients with mild to moderate disease who are at high risk for developing severe COVID-19. 

“HCQ” — the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine — hasn’t been found to benefit COVID-19 patients in randomized controlled trials. Studies are ongoing to see if the drug can prevent COVID-19.

There’s no direct evidence that vitamin D can help COVID-19 cases, but scientists are continuing to study it. Experts do advise getting the recommended dietary amount through foods or supplements, whether or not someone is battling the disease. 

There’s insufficient evidence for the National Institutes of Health to recommend either for or against using zinc or vitamin C to treat COVID-19. Long-term use of zinc can be harmful, and the agency advises not to take amounts above the daily dietary allowance outside of a clinical trial.

No Basis for Fertility Worry

Rodgers baselessly cited concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines and fertility as one reason why he remained unvaccinated.

“The next great chapter of my life, I believe, is being a father,” he said. “And to my knowledge, there’s been zero long-term studies around sterility or fertility issues around the vaccines. So that was definitely something I was worried about.”

While it’s true that there haven’t been long-term studies, there is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines have a negative impact on fertility. Social media has been awash with claims of harm, but there is nothing to support them.

As we wrote after some bogus posts claimed that the vaccines could cause “mass male infertility,” there is no data to back that idea, and in fact, studies to date show that COVID-19 vaccination does not have an effect on sperm.

A June 17 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, found “no significant decreases in any sperm parameter” in healthy men after they received their second dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

It’s possible that sperm counts might fall temporarily if a vaccinated person experienced a fever, but that’s not specific to the COVID-19 shots. That could also occur — and to a worse degree — if someone fell ill with the coronavirus.

The CDC has also noted that there is no evidence that any vaccine has a detrimental effect on male or female fertility. Thus, even though a reproductive effect of the vaccines can’t be ruled out, it would be entirely unprecedented and contrary to the existing evidence. The agency recommends that all eligible individuals, including those who are trying to conceive or who want to have a baby in the future, get vaccinated.

‘Best’ Immunity Is ‘Hybrid’ Immunity

Twice in his interview with McAfee, Rodgers also made dubious claims about natural immunity.

“I’m gonna have the best immunity possible now, based on the 2.5 million person study from Israel, that the people who get COVID and recover have the most robust immunity,” he said.

Later, he repeated the claim. “There’s a lot to natural immunity. And natural immunity has not been a part of the conversation. But the latest studies — and I have 30 of them that I can go through — talk about how important natural immunity is,” he said. “And actually, if you’ve gotten COVID, and recovered from it, that that’s the best boost to immunity you can have.”

Numerous studies have now demonstrated that immunity following infection is quite strong and appears to be fairly durable for most people (although it’s not a “boost” unless your body has encountered it before). Whether vaccination immunity is inferior or not is still being debated — the evidence is mixed — but it’s clear that natural immunity is not the “best” form of immunity to the coronavirus.

That superlative, as we’ve written, goes to people who’ve been infected and who also have been vaccinated, or what’s sometimes called “hybrid” immunity. The CDC recommends that people who have previously had COVID-19 get vaccinated because it’s not known how long natural immunity lasts and because they can still benefit from vaccination. 

It’s not entirely clear which Israeli study Rodgers was citing, but it could be one that we’ve written about before, since it, too, has been the subject of similar spin on social media. The study, which was posted to a preprint server on Aug. 25 and has not yet been peer-reviewed, looked back in time and found that infections with the highly transmissible delta variant were more likely in people vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine than in unvaccinated people who had previously contracted the coronavirus. But importantly, it also found that one dose of the vaccine enhanced protection for infection survivors — a finding that Rodgers ignores.

The study drew on medical records from a health care organization in Israel that includes 2.5 million people, but did not include that many people in the actual analysis.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz also debunked Rodgers’ comments, quoting several Israeli experts who emphasized the importance of getting at least one dose of the vaccine following infection.

Even if natural immunity does turn out to be superior to vaccine-induced immunity, that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t get vaccinated, as the entire point of vaccination is to get immunity without having to get sick. 

As one of the Israeli experts told Haaretz, “It is true that recovering from Covid creates a strong immune response, although it doesn’t last forever, it wanes with time. But the more important thing is that in order to have it, you first need to get sick and survive with no harm.”

Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.