Health care worker dies after second dose of COVID vaccine, investigations underway
Tim Zook’s last post on Facebook brimmed with optimism. “Never been so excited to get a shot before,” he wrote on Jan. 5, above a photo of the Band-Aid on his arm and his COVID-19 vaccination card. “I am now fully vaccinated after receiving my 2nd Pfizer dose.”
Zook, 60, was an X-ray technologist at South Coast Global Medical Center in Santa Ana. A couple of hours later, he had an upset stomach and trouble breathing. By 3:30 p.m. it was so bad his colleagues at work walked him to the emergency room. “Should I be worried?” his wife, Rochelle, texted when she got the news. “No, absolutely not,” he texted back. “Do you think this is a direct result of the vaccine?” she typed. “No, no,” he said. “I’m not sure what. But don’t worry.”
There were suspicions of COVID and a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. Zook was put on oxygen, then — just four hours later — a BiPAP machine to help push air into the lungs. Multiple tests came back negative for COVID.
Shortly after midnight on Jan. 7, the hospital called. Zook was in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator to help him breathe. But his blood pressure soon dropped and he was transferred to UC Irvine Medical Center. “On Friday I get a call, ‘His kidneys are failing. He needs to be on dialysis. If not, he could die — but there’s also a chance he might have a heart attack or stroke on dialysis because his blood pressure is so low,’ ” Rochelle Zook said.
By 4 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 9, Zook had gone “code blue” twice and was snatched back from the brink of death. There was a third code blue in the afternoon. “They said if he went code blue a fourth time, he’d have brain damage and be a vegetable if he survives,” Rochelle Zook said.
Later that day, Tim Zook died.
Reaction? But no blame
“We are not blaming any pharmaceutical company,” said Rochelle Zook, a resident of Orange. “My husband loved what he did. He worked in hospitals for 36 1/2 years. He believed in vaccines. I’m sure he would take that vaccine again, and he’d want the public to take it.
“But when someone gets symptoms 2 1/2 hours after a vaccine, that’s a reaction. What else could have happened? We would like the public to know what happened to Tim, so he didn’t die in vain. Severe reactions are rare. In reality, COVID is a much more deadly force than reactions from the potential vaccine itself.
“The message is, be safe, take the vaccine — but the officials need to do more research. We need to know the cause. The vaccines need to be as safe as possible. Every life matters.”
Zook had high blood pressure, but that had been controlled with medication for years, she said. He was slightly overweight, but quite healthy. “He had never been hospitalized. He’d get a cold and be over it two days later. The flu, and be over it three days later,” she said.
His death has been reported to the national Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, run by the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control. The Orange County coroner has said the cause of death is inconclusive for now, and further toxicology testing will take months.
“The family just wants closure,” said Zook’s cousin, Ken Polanco of Los Angeles. ” ‘Inconclusive’ is not closure. The family wants the pharmaceutical companies to do more research — if there’s some sort of DNA that doesn’t work with this vaccine, if episodes like this can be prevented, they need to do what they can to pin that down.”
Other deaths post-vaccine
Zook’s death comes on the heels of a Florida doctor who died on Jan. 3, weeks after getting his first Pfizer shot. Gregory Michael, a 56-year-old obstetrician and gynecologist in Miami Beach, suffered idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), a rare immune disorder in which the blood doesn’t clot normally. His death is under investigation.
In California, Placer County officials said a man died shortly after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 21. They did not identify the vaccine or the person, but said he had tested positive for COVID in late December and that the vaccine was not given by the Placer County Public Health Department. Facebook posts say the man was a 56-year-old aide in a senior living facility. That death is under investigation as well.
The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System — which officials caution is a “passive surveillance system” and represents unverified reports of health events that occur after vaccination — has gathered more than 130 reports of death after vaccine administration thus far in 2021. A total of 1,330 adverse reactions have been reported, while more than 23.5 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been administered.
Experts caution that drawing a causal line between vaccination and death is often very difficult to do. When millions of people are being vaccinated — more than 13 million have gotten the Pfizer vaccine as of Jan. 26, and more than 10.5 million have received the Moderna vaccine — some would die for any number of unrelated reasons, as a matter of pure statistics.
Every year in the United States, more than 2.8 million people die. That averages out to more than 7,800 deaths per day, according to CDC data.
“No prescription drug or biological product, such as a vaccine, is completely free from side effects. Vaccines protect many people from dangerous illnesses, but vaccines, like drugs, can cause side effects, a small percentage of which may be serious,” says the Department of Health and Human Services in its primer on the VAERS data. “About 85-90% of vaccine adverse event reports concern relatively minor events, such as fevers or redness and swelling at the injection site. The remaining reports (less than 15%) describe serious events, such as hospitalizations, life-threatening illnesses, or deaths. The reports of serious events are of greatest concern and receive the most careful scrutiny by VAERS staff.
“It is important to note that for any reported event, no cause and effect relationship has been established. The event may have been related to an underlying disease or condition, to medications being taken concurrently, or may have occurred by chance.”
A spokesman for Pfizer-BioNTech said the company is aware of Zook’s death and is thoroughly reviewing the matter.
“Our immediate thoughts are with the bereaved family,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We closely monitor all such events and collect relevant information to share with global regulatory authorities. Based on ongoing safety reviews performed by Pfizer, BioNTech and health authorities, (the vaccine) retains a positive benefit-risk profile for the prevention of COVID-19 infections. Serious adverse events, including deaths that are unrelated to the vaccine, are unfortunately likely to occur at a similar rate as they would in the general population.”
The Orange County Coroner has an open death investigation into Zook’s death and will be conducting additional tests within its autopsy protocol, spokeswoman Carrie Braun said. It will use those findings, along with autopsy findings, to make a final determination into the cause and manner of death. “If it’s determined there may be a correlation to the vaccine, we will immediately notify the OC Health Care Agency,” she said.
The FDA said it takes all reports of adverse events related to vaccines seriously, and, along with CDC, “is actively engaged in safety surveillance” of the COVID-19 vaccines that are being administered under emergency use authorizations.
“Any reports of death following the administration of vaccines are promptly and rigorously investigated jointly by FDA and CDC,” it said in an emailed statement. “Such an investigation includes working with health care providers to obtain medical histories and clinical follow-up information.”
Mark Ghaly, secretary of health and human services in California, said the state is looking into these incidents as well. He sends condolences to those who’ve lost loved ones, but stands by the scientific conclusion that the vaccines are safe.
“The details are complex and worthy of further investigation, and that’s what we’re doing now,” Ghaly said on Monday, Jan. 25, on the heels of the Placer death. “Overwhelmingly, though, we’ve seen so many individuals successfully, and without any significant reactions, receive both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.”
Results of the state’s probes will be shared publicly, Ghaly said, along with “lessons learned.” That’s key to continuing the development of confidence in the vaccines “and getting us on the other side of this pandemic,” he said.
Caring, generous man
Zook was a man who passionately urged folks to embrace COVID precautions such as masking up and staying home as ICUs were inundated in December. He loved food, posting photos of home-grown zucchinis, thick steaks, sumptuous Sunday breakfasts, wine tasting in Sonoma.
He shared memes urging calm on Election Day, quoting Lincoln saying “We are not enemies, but friends,” and was moved to share the speech President John F. Kennedy never got to deliver: “Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake. Let us stand together with renewed confidence in our cause — united in our heritage of the past and our hopes for the future — and determined that this land we love shall lead all mankind into new frontiers of peace and abundance.”
Zook was a caring, generous man with deep love for his family, an always-open door and a gift for making others feel comfortable and welcome, friends and family say. Sympathies for his passing have poured in.
“Our deepest condolences are with Tim Zook’s family and loved ones,” said Matt Whaley, CEO of South Coast Global Medical Center, by email. “Tim was a part of our family, too, and we are all grieving his loss.”
Zook and his wife have three grown sons — Aaron, 30, Jared, 26, and Kyle, 24. Zook took a day off work on Monday, Jan. 4 — his last healthy day — to spend with Kyle, who’s fascinated by trains. They went train-spotting.
“They had the most beautiful day together,” Rochelle Zook said.