‘Our message is to take the vaccine,’ says family of man whose death after COVID shot is under investigation
After 11 grueling months working on the front lines at South Coast Global Medical Center in Santa Ana, Tim Zook finally felt hopeful.
The 60-year-old X-ray technologist had watched COVID-19 patients struggle to breathe and families devastated by loss, and he had grappled with his own fears about bringing the deadly virus home to his family. After receiving his second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, he immediately shared his enthusiasm on Facebook.
“Never been so excited to get a shot before,” he wrote Jan. 5, sharing a photo of a Band-Aid on his arm and his completed COVID-19 vaccination card.
“He worked tirelessly this whole year trying to save people’s lives who were impacted by COVID,” said his wife, Rochelle Zook, of Orange. “He came home all year long very emotional, sad about the kind of death he was seeing in this community. But he never gave up. He believed in order to stop this virus you have to take the vaccine.”
A few hours after his second dose, he had an upset stomach and trouble breathing. By 3:30 p.m., his colleagues walked him to the emergency room to be examined. He sent a text to his wife to let her know he’d be home late.
“Should I be worried?” Rochelle messaged back.
“No, absolutely not,” he responded.
She asked if he thought it was a reaction to the vaccine. He said no.
Tests for the coronavirus came back negative. A doctor diagnosed him with congestive heart failure. Zook, who was still struggling to breathe, was put on oxygen and then a BiPAP machine to help send air into his lungs. He told his wife he’d be home the next day.
Zook’s health continued to decline. Less than two days later, he went into respiratory distress and had to be placed on a ventilator. He was transferred to the UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, where his kidneys started to fail. On Jan. 9 — four days after he walked into the emergency room at South Coast Global — Zook had to be resuscitated three times over the course of several hours. He died that afternoon.
Zook’s family still doesn’t know whether the vaccine played a role in his death, which is under investigation by federal and local agencies. His death was first reported by the Orange County Register. Rochelle Zook is insistent that her husband’s story should not dissuade anyone from getting the vaccine. She’s adamant he would get the shots again if he could do it over.
“Our message is to take the vaccine. That’s what Tim would say,” she said. “That’s how we’re going to diminish this horrendous pandemic.”
The Orange County coroner is still working to determine Zook’s exact cause of death. A spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said the county Health Care Agency will be notified if it is determined that there’s a correlation to the vaccine.
Any reports of death following the administration of vaccines are also investigated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agencies work with healthcare providers to obtain medical histories and clinical follow-up information as part of their inquiry, FDA spokeswoman Abby Capobianco wrote in a statement.
“It is important to note that report of an adverse event is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event,” she added.
Without any concrete answers, Zook’s family is hoping that public health agencies and the pharmaceutical companies that developed the vaccines will conduct more research to reduce any adverse effects.
“We want to urge and push the pharmaceutical companies to look into his death and do some more research,” said Ken Polanco, Rochelle Zook’s cousin. “If we can save one life then it’s worth it.”
A spokesman for Pfizer and BioNTech said the companies are aware of Tim Zook’s death and are also reviewing what happened.
“Our immediate thoughts are with the bereaved family. We closely monitor all such events and collect relevant information to share with global regulatory authorities,” Pfizer and BioNTech said in a statement. “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 FDA authorized the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for emergency use after a well-established evaluation procedure for vaccine safety. Cases of anaphylaxis — a severe allergic reaction to the shots that can be life-threatening — have been extremely rare, according to the CDC.
Though no deaths have been linked to the vaccines, officials are investigating at least two other instances of people dying after receiving a dose.
In Florida, a 56-year-old doctor developed a serious form of a condition known as acute immune thrombocytopenia, which prevented his blood from clotting properly after receiving the Pfizer vaccine. He died 16 days later. Officials are also investigating the death of a person last week in Placer County who had recently received a COVID-19 vaccination.
Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a medical epidemiologist and infectious-diseases expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said it is important to realize that an adverse event following a vaccination doesn’t necessarily mean it was caused by the vaccine.
“There can be other reasons for someone to get sick, even severely sick, and die,” he said. “You have to quantify what the risks are, and with COVID vaccines we’re in the neighborhood of about five serious adverse events such as anaphylaxis for every million doses distributed, which is very low.”
Kim-Farley emphasized that vaccines that have been developed are safe, effective and necessary to control the spread of infectious disease.
“They are not 100% safe nor are they 100% effective, but the main thing to always consider is what would happen in the absence of vaccinations. The current pandemic is exactly that,” he said.
While the family waits for answers, Rochelle Zook is clinging to happier memories of her husband of 34 years — a foodie who loved cooking steaks and savoring a glass of bold red wine from Sonoma with her and their three grown sons.
Over Christmas, the family drove up to Bakersfield, where their oldest son, Aaron, recently bought a home with his fiancée. Tim Zook, who typically did all the cooking, was overjoyed when his son executed a beautiful holiday dinner for the group by himself.
“He was so proud seeing his oldest son march forward,” Rochelle Zook said. “I saw Tim for the first time in a long time just so happy. We just keep holding on to that.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.