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Dr. Céline Gounder confronts disinformation about her husband's death

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On December 9, the phone of epidemiologist and infectious disease physician Celine Gounder started blowing up. She was getting calls, texts, emails, all with the same message. Her husband of 21 years, the soccer journalist Grant Wahl, had collapsed halfway around the world while covering the World Cup in Qatar. An hour later, Gounder learned that Wahl had died.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The sudden, unexplained death of a loved one is a nightmare for anyone, but Gounder's pain was instantly compounded. As soon as news of Wahl's death spread, so too did rumors about what killed her husband. The top theory - that the COVID vaccine was responsible. It wasn't. An autopsy later showed that Grant Wahl died from an aortic aneurysm. Gounder gave interviews, widely shared the results of her husband's autopsy, but the rumors and conspiracies have persisted. Now, she's speaking out again.

Celine Gounder joins me now. And before we talk about why you're here, I just want to say how sorry I am for your loss.

CELINE GOUNDER: Thanks, Juana.

SUMMERS: How have you been doing?

GOUNDER: That's a really tough question to answer. I'm surviving. I have been surrounded by the support and love of so many family and friends, and I am just so very thankful for that.

SUMMERS: I want to turn now to the reason why you and I are speaking today. Besides this conversation, you've also published an opinion piece in The New York Times. What's prompting you to speak out 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-vaxx 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. 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: We've been talking with 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 in December. Thank you so much for being here.

GOUNDER: Thank you, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.