Why experts are calling out ESPN's Allison Williams for her COVID-19 vaccine and fertility statement

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 29: ESPN sideline reporter Allison Williams talk to the camera on the sideline during the Cotton Bowl Classic matchup between the USC Trojans and Ohio State Buckeyes on December 29, 2017, at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.  Ohio State won the game 24-7.  (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ESPN reporter Allison Williams surprised fans when she shared that she won't be covering college footballs games this fall due to her company's COVID-19 vaccination mandate. (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Longtime ESPN reporter Allison Williams surprised fans last week when she shared that she won't be covering college footballs games this fall due to her company's COVID-19 vaccination mandate. Williams, who has been with ESPN since 2011, shared that she's trying to have another child and has concerns about how the vaccine will impact her fertility.

The Walt Disney Company, which owns ESPN, announced in July that all U.S. employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to work.

"While my work is incredibly important to me, the most important role I have is as a mother," she wrote. "Throughout our family planning with our doctor, as well as a fertility specialist, I have decided not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at this time while my husband and I try for a second child."

Williams said this was a "deeply difficult decision" and "not something I take lightly."

"I understand vaccines have been essential in the effort to end this pandemic, however taking the vaccine at this time is not in my best interest," she continued. "After a lot of prayer and deliberation, I have decided I must put my family and personal health first. I will miss being on the sidelines and am thankful for the support of my ESPN family. I look forward to when I can return to the games and job that I love."

The comments of Williams' post were overwhelmingly filled with messages from people who said that the COVID-19 vaccine does not impact fertility, including from several doctors. One was ob-gyn Dr. Jen Gunter, who had this to say: "The vaccine does not affect fertility and the literal fertility experts recommend COVID-19 vaccination during the work up for infertility for anyone who is unvaccinated. It is safe and life saving."

"Sorry, your decision is wrong. Point blank," wrote urologist Dr. Ashley Winter. "Vaccination has not been shown to have any negative impact on fertility. Please do not spread false information. You are stepping down from you job for a non-evidence based reason. Please say that in your statement."

"Where is the data? No good peer-reviewed study on fertility being negatively affected by the vaccine," tweeted Dr. Nathaniel Walsh, a general surgeon in Wesley Chapel, Florida. "Also aren’t doing everything you can to protect your family by opting not to get vaccinated. Stay safe and healthy."

Others shared their own stories of fertility after vaccination. "If you get COVID while [you're] pregnant and you are unvaccinated it could do serious harm to you and your baby," one person wrote. "Being pregnant puts you at much more serious risk. It's not worth it. My wife got pregnant no problem a couple months after getting the vaccine."

"My wife got vaccinated and she got pregnant two months later. Perfectly [healthy] with no issues," another said. "Several of my friends got vaccinated while pregnant. And they had far better outcomes than those who were unvaccinated and caught the virus."

But many people who responded to these comments said that there's no proof the vaccines won't impact fertility. Experts tell Yahoo Life that's not true.

Dr. Michael Cackovic, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that the idea that the COVID-19 vaccine impacts fertility is a "myth."

"No vaccine has ever been shown to cause infertility in either men or women," he says.

Where did the idea that the COVID-19 vaccine impacts fertility come from?

There are a few possible sources. The idea that the COVID-19 vaccine impacts fertility likely came from a social media post that said that the spike protein on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was the same as another spike protein called syncytin-1, Cackovic says.

"The syncytin-1 protein is involved in the growth and attachment of the placenta during pregnancy," Cackovic explains. "The post incorrectly alleged that the vaccine would cause a woman’s body to make antibodies to syncytin-1, affecting her fertility. The truth is that the two spike proteins are completely different and distinct, and the COVID vaccine will not create antibodies against syncytin-1."

Not only that, Cackovic says, "there is really no direct evidence that any problem with syncytin-1 actually causes infertility."

There have also been some reports that some vaccinated women had irregular menstrual cycles after being vaccinated, Dr. Barry Witt, medical director at WINFertility, tells Yahoo Life. But, he says, "there is nothing in the vaccines that could explain this, and experts suggest that stress is more likely the cause of these menstrual irregularities."

Even so, Witt says, "these disruptions are transient and resolve quickly, so they are not likely to have a significant effect on fertility."

Major ob-gyn and fertility organizations support the vaccine

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support COVID-19 vaccination for women who are pregnant and trying to conceive. "The organizations' recommendations in support of vaccination during pregnancy reflect evidence demonstrating the safe use of the COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy from tens of thousands of reporting individuals over the last several months, as well as the current low vaccination rates and concerning increase in cases," ACOG and ASRM said in a joint statement issued in July.

ASRM also said in a January statement that "COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for women who are contemplating pregnancy or who are pregnant in order to minimize risks to themselves and their pregnancy."

The CDC has a page on its website dedicated to women who are trying to conceive, noting that vaccination is recommended for "people who are trying to get pregnant now or might become pregnant in the future, as well as their partners."

The CDC notes that there is "no evidence" that the vaccine impacts fertility and even cites a recent study of pregnancy success rates in women undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF) as evidence. That study, which was published in June, analyzed data from women who had been vaccinated against COVID-19, had antibodies from a previous COVID-19 infection and had no antibodies from a recent infection or the vaccine, and found that there was no difference in pregnancy success rates between the three groups.

Dr. Jane Frederick, a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist at HRC Fertility, tells Yahoo Life that it's so important for women who are trying to conceive to get vaccinated. "When you're pregnant, you're more likely to get respiratory viruses in general," she says. "With COVID, it's like you have an underlying medical condition like diabetes or obesity when you're pregnant. I have seen more and more unvaccinated patients end up in the ICU with complications of COVID that could have been prevented if we had vaccinated them before they got sick."

Unvaccinated pregnant women who get COVID-19 are also more likely to have preterm births, Frederick says. "If you're trying to help yourself and your health, and you're also hoping to give your baby the best chance of going full term, I recommend that you get vaccinated," she says.

A COVID-19 infection can also impact a man's fertility, which is why vaccination is urged for men who are trying to conceive as well, Witt says. "Studies have not linked the vaccines with problems related to erectile performance or sperm counts or quality. But COVID-19 can cause problems in these areas," he says. "Some recent studies have suggested that the SARS-COV-2 virus can be present in testis tissue and can cause inflammation of the testes with resultant impairment in sperm production in up to 10 to 20 percent of men who get infected. Semen from COVID-19 inpatients showed that almost 40 percent of them have reduced sperm counts and 60 percent have increased white blood cells in the semen. There are also studies suggesting that survivors of COVID-19 may suffer from erectile dysfunction. Getting the COVID-19 vaccine can prevent infection and resultant male fertility problems."

Frederick says she feels that it's her "duty" to inform her patients about the importance of getting the vaccine. "I ask them to read the literature, I give them brochures and all the information I have," she says. "I ask them not to go off of hearsay — go off of the science."

Frederick says she's especially concerned with the Delta variant circulating so widely in the country. "This is a whole different COVID than we saw back in January," she says. "That scares me even more. And after this, there will be more variants. It's really better to get vaccinated." Cackovic agrees. "The best thing a mom can do for her baby and family is protect herself with vaccination," he says.

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