CLAIM: The Federal Aviation Administration loosened the requirements that airline pilots must meet for cardiac health because a large number have heart damage caused by the COVID-19 vaccines.
THE FACTS: In October, the FAA widened the acceptable parameters it uses when screening pilots for a specific heart condition called heart block, or AV block. This change was made in response to new scientific evidence about the condition from its cardiology consultants, not adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines. The update prompted speculation, with some falsely claiming that it is connected to the vaccines.
AV block can make it difficult for one’s heart to pump blood effectively by delaying or blocking the electrical signal that controls one’s heartbeat. It is classified as first, second or third degree and is often diagnosed with an electrocardiogram test, also referred to as an EKG or ECG, which measures the heart’s electrical activity. A normal EKG result is generally defined as having a PR interval — how long it takes the electrical signal to travel from the top part of the heart to the bottom — of between 120 and 200 milliseconds. A PR interval of more than 200 milliseconds typically indicates AV block. However, first-degree AV block only delays the electrical signal, rather than blocking it, and often does not have noticeable effects.
“In an otherwise healthy heart, this is usually a benign condition and rarely causes any symptoms,” said Dr. Roland Assi, a cardiac surgeon and assistant professor at Yale University.
Previously, pilots with first-degree AV block were required to submit documentation proving that they had “no evidence of structural function or coronary heart disease” before they could be certified to fly. The FAA’s recent update to its guidelines specifies that pilots with first-degree AV block and a PR interval of less than 300 milliseconds can be certified without additional documentation if they are not exhibiting symptoms and if their medical examiner does not have any concerns. This decision was not made because pilots are developing heart problems from COVID-19 vaccinations.
“When making changes to medical requirements and guidance, the FAA follows standard processes based on data and science,” the agency told the AP in an emailed statement. “Our cardiology consultants provided information that anything under 300ms requires no additional testing and is not a risk for sudden or subtle incapacitation.”
If a pilot has first-degree AV block with a PR interval of 300 milliseconds or more, further data still must be submitted to the FAA before a final decision on their certification can be made. According to Rossi, certifying a pilot with first-degree AV block carries “no real risk,” as long as there are no other issues. Dr. Richard Kovacs, chief medical officer at the American College of Cardiology, agreed that the FAA’s new guidelines are not worrisome.
“The FAA’s updated criteria for widening the ECG parameters regarding AV Block are reasonable and consistent with ACC guideline recommendations,” he wrote in an email to the AP. Severe reactions to COVID-19 vaccines, such as sustaining heart damage, are rare, according to the CDC. Rossi and Adler explained that scientific evidence does not point to AV block being linked to the COVID-19 vaccine. The FAA also said in its statement that it “has no evidence of aircraft accidents or incapacitations caused by pilots suffering medical complications associated with COVID-19 vaccines.”
— Associated Press writer Melissa Goldin in New York contributed this report.