Dr. Céline Gounder Speaks Out About Disinformation Around Her Husband's Death : Consider This from NPR The soccer world was shocked by the death of renowned U.S. soccer journalist Grant Wahl at the World Cup in Qatar. Then came the conspiracy theories claiming his death was caused by the COVID vaccine.

Wahl died from an aortic aneurysm. His wife, epidemiologist Dr. Céline Gounder, gave multiple interviews and released Wahl's autopsy results to combat the disinformation.

We ask Gounder about her decision to speak out about her husband's death, and about his legacy.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Dr. Céline Gounder Dispels Disinformation About Her Husband's Death

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If you follow soccer in the United States, you know the name Grant Wahl.


GRANT WAHL: We're still a growing soccer country in the United States with, I would say, millions of more soccer fans to be created.

SUMMERS: Wahl was a longtime sportswriter. He spent more than 25 years with Sports Illustrated before branching out on his own. Covering soccer wasn't just a job for him. It was his main focus and his passion.


WAHL: Whether you go to Japan or Iceland or wherever around the world, it's all connected. This sport is everywhere. Every country has a story with soccer.

SUMMERS: Last month, Wahl was in Qatar covering soccer's premier competition, the World Cup, when he collapsed in the press box during one of the matches.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Following breaking news out of Qatar, the soccer world in shock over the sudden death of one of its best known U.S. journalists, Grant Wahl. Wahl collapsed...

SUMMERS: His unexpected death made news around the world. Before a cause of death was determined and made public, there was speculation about what might have killed Wahl. As Wahl's wife and family were grappling with the shocking news of his death, conspiracy theorists began to claim that Wahl had died because of the COVID vaccine. His wife, infectious disease physician and epidemiologist Celine Gounder, felt compelled to release the results of Wahl's autopsy. It concluded that the 49-year-old journalist had died because of a ruptured blood vessel in his heart, an aortic aneurysm.


SUMMERS: CONSIDER THIS - conspiracy theories about COVID and COVID vaccines have been rampant for the past three years. The spread of misinformation is a serious public health problem. And when conspiracy theorists targeted her family, Celine Gounder decided to do something about it. My conversation with her is just ahead. From NPR, I'm Juana Summers. It's Monday, January 16.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Celine Gounder says that her husband, sports journalist Grant Wahl, fell in love with soccer back in college.

CELINE GOUNDER: During college, he also spent time - first, starting with the summer after his sophomore year, he had gotten a scholarship to study soccer. It was 1994 - the World Cup that year. And he was comparing U.S. soccer with Argentine soccer. And then the following summer, he spent the entire summer in Buenos Aires studying the politics of a Argentine soccer club's work that was really inspired by the work of political scientist Robert Putnam. And he saw this as a way of understanding civic institutions; you know, how people came together and organized and really what were the roots of social and political organizing. And, you know, that shed some light onto how Grant thought about soccer. It wasn't just a sport. It was so much more. It had such a - much more important role in society.

SUMMERS: Wahl would go on to become one of the best known and most respected soccer journalists in the U.S. When news broke last month that he had died suddenly in Qatar, Gounder says there was an outpouring of support for her and her grieving family.

GOUNDER: You know, I myself am not a sports fan or a soccer fan. I learned a bit by osmosis over the years, but I don't think I fully understood what kind of following he had. I mean, I just knew Grant as my college sweetheart.

SUMMERS: An autopsy showed that Wahl died of an aortic aneurysm. But even after Gounder released those findings publicly, conspiracy theorists continued to claim that Wahl's death was caused by the COVID vaccine. Gounder, who is an epidemiologist, decided she had to push back, giving interview after interview to dispel the rumors about her husband's death. I spoke with Gounder about why she went public after Wahl's death and why she's speaking out again now.

GOUNDER: I really had hoped that when I first put out a written statement, that I did several interviews on various different media platforms, that that would really put these conspiracy theories to an end - that by putting out the information, people who were asking for an explanation would have had their explanation and that then I could take a breath and grieve in privacy. And then when Damar Hamlin's cardiac arrest occurred during the game on the field, that unfortunately stirred up a lot of these conspiracy theories all over again.

SUMMERS: And Damar Hamlin, that's the safety for the Buffalo Bills who collapsed during a Monday night football game.

GOUNDER: Yes. And I started to get messages again, as I had early on, from anti-vax conspiracy theorists who were blaming not only my husband's death but also Damar Hamlin's cardiac arrest as well as the deaths of other young, healthy people recently on the COVID vaccines. And I felt at that point that I did have to take these conspiracy theories head-on.

SUMMERS: You know, we should point out, for those who may not be familiar, that you have been a public, prominent health voice during the pandemic. You advised the Biden administration on COVID during the presidential transition. What was it like for you to see your husband's death used by people who are spreading misinformation about COVID vaccines and continue to do so even weeks later?

GOUNDER: It felt so exploitive to use this horrible tragedy for me and my family, to exploit that for their own ends. Disinformation is a business model, make no mistake about it. And these are people who are trying to make money, who are trying to gain social media followers or subscribers on Substack or some kind of social status or power. And that really is just retraumatizing not just me and my family but others who have been victims of this kind of behavior.

SUMMERS: You know, at this point, you have been fighting vaccine misinformation for years. Yet in that op-ed, you write that it's a normal human impulse to want answers in the wake of a sudden tragedy. Is that enough to explain some of the misinformation in response to your husband's death?

GOUNDER: I do think people, especially close family and friends, were really asking questions. I was asking questions. It was really important to me to know what was the cause of death. And getting the autopsy gave me at least some partial sense of closure, of having an answer. But when people call for investigations, I think they really have to step back and ask themselves, what are they talking about when they say investigation - an autopsy by a medical examiner and forensic scientists? That is an investigation into this kind of death. And I think what some of these folks are really saying when they say they want an investigation, they want the criminal justice system turned against these unfortunate victims like myself and my family because they don't like, you know, what we stand for - in my case, a public health message. And they really want to punish us for what we stand for.

SUMMERS: You also wrote about one incredibly troubling email that you received during all of this, about karma. Can you tell us about that?

GOUNDER: Yeah, and this is one of a few hundred, actually, as well as voicemail messages and other kinds of harassing messages. But this particular email blamed me for having killed my husband because he got COVID vaccinations and said this was karma, that I was being punished for having done this. I do believe in karma. I do believe in the idea that how we behave, what we put out into the world impacts our experience of the world. And I think if you look at the outpouring of love and support for my husband and our family after his death, I think that shows evidence of karma. And he really lived a very moral life, believed in seeking out the truth in his reporting but also believed in issues of social justice and fighting for human rights in his journalism. And I think that is why so many people reached out in the aftermath - because of how he lived his life.

SUMMERS: You know, as I think about what that email said, what it implied, I can't imagine receiving it about someone that I loved so very much. How did you respond to that? How did you deal with that?

GOUNDER: Well, on the one hand, I've been getting, you know, threats - rape threats, death threats for years now because of my work. And honestly, I had learned to shrug those off. But this was just - it hurt a lot. Grant did not deserve that. My family does not deserve that.

SUMMERS: Before I let you go, I want to end by asking you about Grant. It is clear that he had this incredible body of work that many people remember him by. And you've really channeled a horrible situation into protecting public health in your husband's name. How should people remember him? And what do you want people to know about the work that you have been doing since his death?

GOUNDER: My husband was an amazing writer. His turn of phrase was lyrical. He was also a feminist. And when I say feminist, not just in terms of equality for women but really across the board. And he tried to use sports journalism as a way of explaining culture, politics and fighting for social justice.

SUMMERS: That was infectious disease physician and epidemiologist Celine Gounder. She's also a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Her husband, sports journalist Grant Wahl, died of an aortic aneurysm last month.



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