WEST POINT — Back when he was in the U.S. Air Force, vaccinations were required of airmen, and Al Hawley recalls conversations with military medics about the possible dangers of getting inoculations.
Yes, Hawley was told, deaths, however rare, can happen, “but it’s a small number, one in a million,” he said. “Basically, what that kind of means to me — if you need the shot, you kind of have to take that risk.”
With the Feb. 5 death of his stepdaughter, Kassidi Kurill, the West Point man has been recalling those discussions with the Air Force medics. It makes him wonder if the death of Kurill — just four days after her second COVID-19 vaccine shot on Feb. 1 — was somehow connected to getting vaccinated. The 39-year-old woman, otherwise healthy, lived in West Point with her 9-year-old daughter Emilia, her mom and her stepdad, Hawley. She sought out the vaccination because she was a medical worker, a surgical technician for area plastic surgeons.
“I think it was definitely the shot because it was a constant progression from the shot to being ill to having organ shutdown,” Hawley said.
That is, Kurill started exhibiting some of the common side effects of the Moderna vaccine soon after getting her second and final booster shot — fever, headache, nausea, chills. The side effects lingered on then worsened, so three days later, Kurill went to the Davis Hospital and Medical Center emergency room in Layton. Doctors there determined she needed more specialized care and she was evacuated via helicopter to Intermountain Medical Center in Murray. She died the next day, Feb. 5.
“They said her liver had basically shut down,” Hawley said.
An autopsy is being carried out, Hawley said, which he hopes helps clarify the situation. U.S. and Utah medical officials, though, while not commenting on the Kurill case specifically, report no deaths definitively linked to COVID-19 vaccines. “We have not had any yet. Nothing has been confirmed,” said Martha Sharon, spokesperson for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The Utah Department of Health said it looks into deaths when the COVID-19 vaccine is mentioned, but so far officials have found no links. “There is no evidence COVID-19 vaccines have caused any deaths in Utah. Reports of adverse reactions and death following vaccination do not necessarily mean the vaccine caused the reaction or death,” said a statement.
At any rate, the Kurill case, along with three other deaths of people in Utah after they received COVID-19 vaccinations, are on federal officials’ radar screen, included in the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, database. The database is a compilation of submitted reports of people’s adverse reactions, including death, to varied vaccines.
Aside from Kurill, the other three from Utah include an 86-year-old man who died Feb. 5, 11 days after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine; an 83-year-old woman who died Jan. 16, four days after being vaccinated; and a second 83-year-old woman who died on an unspecified date, a day after vaccination. Nationwide, 1,136 cases of people who died after getting a COVID-19 vaccination were in the VAERS database, according to Sharon.
There’s no telling if any of the 1,136 deaths nationwide, including the four in Utah, are, in fact, connected to the COVID-19 vaccine, but Sharon said medical records, autopsies and other documents related to the cases will be reviewed by CDC reps. Right now, she said, the agency is “swimming” in data that it has yet to sort through.
While not commenting on particulars of Kurill’s untimely death, Sharon offered condolences. “It’s very unfortunate. Obviously our heart goes out to the people who have experienced tragedy,” she said.
Hawley described Kurill, who was divorced, as a doting mother, generous with others and vibrant. She lived in Davis County pretty much her entire life. “She was just alive,” he said.
But while expressing sorrow, Sharon also defended the COVID-19 vaccines, which have undergone rigorous review by medical experts. “We find that the vaccines are safe. We’re not finding anything out of the ordinary,” she said.
In fact, the reported deaths that have followed vaccinations represent a minuscule share of the overall numbers of people who have been vaccinated. In the U.S., 33,226,913 people had been fully vaccinated, according to data posted Thursday on the Johns Hopkins University and Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center website. The 1,136 deaths across the country in the VAERS database, reported as of Feb. 26, represent 0.003419% of the total who are fully vaccinated.
The four cases in Utah represent 0.001177% of the 339,743 people who have been fully vaccinated, according to Utah Department of Health data.
“Millions of vaccinations are administered to children and adults in the United States each year. Serious adverse reactions are uncommon and deaths caused by vaccines are very rare,” reads ”Deaths following vaccination: What does the evidence show?”, a CDC report published in 2015, before the COVID-19 pandemic. It went on: “Any discussion of the true risks of vaccination should be balanced by acknowledgment of the well-established benefits of vaccines in preventing disease, disability and deaths from infectious diseases.”
Even Hawley got the COVID-19 vaccine, the second shot after his daughter’s death. The bigger risk for him, he determined, would be not getting vaccinated.
“I am 69 and diabetic. COVID is a pretty big threat for me,” he said. “It’s a decision you have to make for yourself and you need to make it based on a risk analysis.”
Still, he wonders.
Maybe the autopsy, when complete, will show Kurill had some other underlying condition that led to her death. However, given her rapid decline after getting the vaccination, Hawley suspects the shot had something to do with it, even while acknowledging that he may never get a definitive answer.
“I think my daughter was a one-in-a-million that had an adverse reaction. Because of that, you should go in there with your eyes open,” he said.