Fact check: Post falsely claims change in FAA guidelines linked to COVID-19 vaccine – USA TODAY

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A scary moment of pilot ejecting from jet after he failed landing

A pilot was forced to eject from a fighter jet after a failed attempt at a vertical landing at a military base in Fort Worth, Texas.

Ariana Triggs, Storyful

The claim: FAA loosened pilot ECG parameters due to COVID-19 vaccine impact

A Jan. 17 Instagram post (direct link, archived link) shows a screenshot of a tweet that portrays two pilots in a cockpit.

“The FAA just telegraphed the fact that a substantial number of airline pilots have had serious heart damage from the COVID vaccine by widening the ECG parameters for pilots,” reads the tweet.

The tweet includes a link to a Substack article from Steve Kirsch, a tech millionaire who has previously spread misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines and makes the same claim about the FAA and the vaccine. 

The post generated nearly 2,000 likes in less than a week.

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Our rating: False

A spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration told USA TODAY the agency relaxed electrocardiogram parameters because of new information presented by cardiology consultants. The change had nothing to do with the COVID-19 vaccine.

Agency’s new requirements not due to COVID-19 vaccine

The FAA loosened certification requirements for pilots with first-degree atrioventricular block, also known as “heart block,” a condition that causes delayed electrical impulses to the heart’s ventricles. This change had nothing to do with the COVID-19 vaccine, an FAA spokesperson said in an emailed statement to USA TODAY.

The requirements were relaxed due to new information regarding the speed of electrical signals called “PR intervals” that move from the upper chamber to the lower chamber of the heart and are measured by an electrocardiogram test, Dr. Christopher Kramer, chief of the cardiovascular division at the University of Virginia, told USA TODAY in an email.

Before, pilots with first-degree atrioventricular block (heart block) were required to submit paperwork that they had no evidence of “structural, functional or coronary heart disease” to be certified, according to the FAA’s 2022 guide for aviation medical examiners. 

In October 2022, the agency changed the requirements so that pilots with first-degree atrioventricular block with a PR interval of less than 300 milliseconds could be certified as long as they have no symptoms or concerns from their medical examiner, according to the FAA’s updated guide. The PR interval of a healthy heart lies between 120 and 200 milliseconds, Kramer said. 

Fact check: False claim pilots started training for sudden death mid-flight in 2022

The change was made after cardiology consultants provided new scientific evidence showing that anything under 300 milliseconds is not a risk for sudden or subtle incapacitation, the FAA spokesperson said.

The new standard is still stricter than standards in other industries. For example, in healthy athletes a PR interval less than 400 milliseconds is considered normal, Dr. Richard Kovacs, chief medical officer at the American College of Cardiology, told USA TODAY in an email. 

There’s also no evidence of a large number of pilots suffering heart damage from the COVID-19 vaccine as the post claims, Kramer added.

The FAA spokesperson said that there is “no evidence of aircraft accidents or incapacitations caused by pilots suffering medical complications associated with COVID-19 vaccines.” Multiple airlines have told USA TODAY the same.

USA TODAY has debunked other claims falsely linking pilots and the COVID-19 vaccines, including baseless assertions that pilots started training for sudden death during a flight in 2022 and that COVID-19 vaccinated American Airlines pilots died during flights.

USA TODAY reached out to the social media users who shared the claim for comment.

The Associated Press and PolitiFact also debunked the claim. 

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