O.C. health worker who died after getting COVID-19 vaccine would want others to get vaccinated, wife says

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Tim Zook, a 60-year-old health care worker from Orange, died on Jan. 9, just four days after taking his second dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine. But while his death is under investigation, his family isn’t jumping to conclusions about the role the vaccine may have played in it.

Tim and Rochelle Zook are seen in an undated photo shared by his family.
Tim and Rochelle Zook are seen in an undated photo shared by his family.

“He believed firmly in vaccines,” his wife Rochelle Zook said, adding that her husband loved his job as a radiological technician, and he advocated for others to get vaccinated. “We all agree that everyone should be. … I agree with my husband.”

Tim, who worked at Coastal Global Medical Center in Santa Ana, started to complain of abdominal pain and difficulty breathing about 2 1/2 hours after receiving his second dose on Jan. 5, according to Rochelle.

By the end of his shift, Tim’s colleagues escorted him to the emergency room, where doctors ran tests and ruled out congestive heart failure and COVID-19.

“It was presenting as COVID but the test keep coming back negative,” his wife said. “They tested him again. No congestive heart failure.”

Two days later, Tim was put into a medically induced coma and was on a ventilator. Then his blood pressure dropped and so he was rushed to UC Irvine Medical Center, where he later died.

The news of Tim Zook’s death comes as officials in Placer County announced they were investigating the death of a patient shortly after the individual had received the vaccine. The person had tested positive for the virus a few weeks prior, officials said. “Any reports surrounding the cause of death are premature, pending the outcome of the investigation,” the Placer County Sheriff’s Office said last week.

In Tim Zook’s case, the Orange County coroner’s office says his cause of death is inconclusive pending toxicology results and further medical examination.

His death was submitted to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, according to the Orange County Register, which reported on Zook’s case Tuesday. The system, jointly operated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is designed to help with “detecting unusual or unexpected patterns” that could indicate a problem with a vaccine.

Reports of deaths after vaccination are investigated by the CDC and FDA, the latter agency said in a statement to the Register. The state is also looking into reports of deaths, Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of health and human services, told the newspaper.

There have been reports of allergic reactions to the vaccine in some patients, and the CDC advises those who have a severe reaction to the first shot to forgo the second shot.

The FDA has maintained that the two approved COVID-19 vaccines are safe, with Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn stating that the doses adhere to the “rigorous standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to support emergency use authorization.”

Tim Zook is seen in an undated photo shared by his family.
Tim Zook is seen in an undated photo shared by his family.

Zook’s wife is waiting for answers and doesn’t want to make any assumptions.

“We don’t know what happened,” his wife said. “And it’s just so hard to accept because he was a hero. He was a health care worker on the line in the hospital.”

Rochelle explained that her husband was overweight and had hypertension since he was 19 years old, receiving treatment for it until the day he died.

In an interview, Dr. Daisy Dodd, an infectious disease specialist at Kaiser Permanente who was not a part of Tim’s care team, warned about jumping to conclusions.

“Nowhere has there been anybody dying from the vaccine. So whether it is cause and effect is the question,” Dodd said.

She said she would advise those who are apprehensive to get the shot that “the vaccines are definitely safe.”

“They are safe and they are efficacious, meaning that you are not going to have any major problems after being vaccinated and you will be protected,” she said. “Thousands of people, not only in the United States but around the world, have done quite well. This gentleman is very unfortunate but we really don’t know if there is cause and effect. Would he have passed away regardless of the vaccination? That remains to be seen. But I still stand by the vaccine.”

And Rochelle said she will still get the vaccine.

“My husband will be the first one to tell you that he would’ve done this all over again. He would take the vaccine and would want all of us and the public to do it,” the widow said. “Once we know what happened, if it’s not the vaccine, then so be it. We need answers. If it is, then research needs to be done, further research.”

Drugmaker Pfizer says the company is reviewing the incident, but insisted the vaccine is safe.

“Pfizer and BioNTech are aware of this death and are thoroughly reviewing the matter. Our immediate thoughts are with the bereaved family,” Sharon Castillo, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an email to KTLA. “We closely monitor all such events and collect relevant information to share with global regulatory authorities. Based on ongoing safety reviews performed by Pfizer, BioNTech and health authorities, BNT162b2 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 Zook family, coping with the loss, is “doing our best,” Rochelle said.

“We’re a strong family. We are just getting through each day.”

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