Fact check: Ohio doctor who joked about shots didn’t die from COVID-19 vaccine
The claim: Ohio doctor who joked about vaccine microchips died after receiving COVID-19 vaccine
Dr. Thomas Flanigan joked after getting the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in February that the new microchip he had implanted with his Moderna shot was working just fine.
“My mind is slowly being taken over by the hive mind,” he wrote alongside a selfie with his vaccination card in a Feb. 3 Facebook post. “We are just fine. Resistance is futile.”
The post initially generated comments from those connected to Flanigan, but activity picked up on the photo more than two months later after Earthley, a wellness company, paired it with a screenshot of a remembrance page shortly after Flanigan’s obituary went viral.
Flanigan’s friends wrote the obituary after his death in April with the same dry humor Flanigan was known for in an annual New Year’s letter.
“This man mocked people who are (anti-vaccine) … then this happened,” Earthley’s May 11 post said, alongside Flanigan’s vaccine selfies and his remembrance page.
The post was shared more than 250 times and had more than 450 comments as of May 19.
Earthley owner Kate Tietje told USA TODAY the post wasn’t meant to imply the vaccine had killed Flanigan. But commenters that descended on Flanigan’s page after his death, some sharing screenshots of Earthley’s post, made the connection.
“Many people won’t make the link or will say they d.i.e.d of c/0:v|-d,” one commenter wrote on Flanigan’s photo.
Flanigan’s death was not related to the vaccine, Amy Flanigan, his wife, told USA TODAY.
Death not related to COVID-19
Earlier reports about Flanigan’s April 27 death said he died of an undetermined medical problem. But his wife told USA TODAY that Flanigan died from an undiagnosed aortic dissection.
A Toledo, Ohio, surgeon who did multiple tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army, Flanigan’s had a penchant for jokes, his Facebook page shows. In an April 22 post, he shared a meme that said, “Remember back when we used to eat cake after someone blew all over it? Man, we were wild.”
Among the memes and photos of his three children, Flanigan also shared two vaccine selfies. Still wearing scrubs and a face mask, Flanigan holds his vaccination card near his chest in the posts set about a month apart in January and February.
“I did it for the free orange juice. I’m pretty sure the needle was like a foot long,” he wrote with the first photo. “The good news is that I didn’t feel the microchip going in but I can hear local radio stations now.”
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Both of those photos were part of Earthley’s post on May 11. The Columbus-based company sells personal care products and “herbal remedies,” but it also has trafficked in misinformation.
The Federal Trade Commission sent the company a warning letter in April 2020 as part of a larger “crackdown on coronavirus scams,” according to Politifact.
Commenters immediately made a connection between the vaccine and Flanigan’s death, even though there is no evidence to support that. They flooded his photo from two months earlier with new responses, some questioning whether others who had previously responded were still alive after getting their vaccine.
Still, Tietje said the intent of the post was to call attention to Flanigan’s “mocking people who are uncertain about getting the vaccine.”
“There was a bit of irony in the situation – even if the two actions were unrelated,” she said in an email to USA TODAY. She said it is not claiming “that the vaccine was causal in the doctor’s death.”
Clinical trials have found the coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be safe and effective at preventing the virus.
More than 159 million people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Our ruling: Missing context
The claim that an Ohio doctor who joked about vaccine microchips died after receiving COVID-19 vaccine is MISSING CONTEXT. The owner of the company that posted the claim said it wasn’t meant to imply the vaccine killed Flanigan, but commenters made the connection. Flanigan’s death was not related to the vaccine: His wife told USA TODAY he died of an undiagnosed aortic dissection.
Our fact-check sources:
- Earthley owner Kate Tietje, May 19, email exchange with USA TODAY
- Amy Flanigan, wife of Dr. Thomas Flanigan, May 19, email exchange with USA TODAY
- Toledo Blade, May 10, Toledo surgeon’s obituary goes viral
- Toledo Blade, Thomas Flanigan obituary
- Mayo Clinic, accessed May 19, Aortic dissection explanation
- Federal Trade Commission, April 9, 2020, Warning letter to Earthley
- Politifact, March 30, False vaccine claims persist on Facebook, despite a ban. Here’s why
- USA TODAY, April 30, Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines don’t cause death, won’t decimate world’s population
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed May 19, Selected Adverse Events Reported after COVID-19 Vaccination
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed May 19, COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States
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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.