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Warriors’ Wiggins: ‘Only options were to get vaccinated or not be in the NBA’

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 10/5/2021 By Connor Letourneau
PORTLAND, OREGON - OCTOBER 04: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers works towards the basket against Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Golden State Warriors in the second quarter during the preseason game at Moda Center on October 04, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) © Abbie Parr / Getty Images

PORTLAND, OREGON - OCTOBER 04: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers works towards the basket against Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Golden State Warriors in the second quarter during the preseason game at Moda Center on October 04, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

PORTLAND — A defiant Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins said late Monday night that the only reason he got the coronavirus vaccine was so that he could play a full season with the Warriors and not forfeit more than $15 million in salary. Wiggins amplified numerous falsehoods about the vaccine and encouraged opponents of the shots to “keep fighting, stand for what they believe and hopefully it works out for them.”

Medical experts say that vaccinating as many people as possible is essential to stopping the pandemic, which has killed more than 4 million people worldwide. The vaccines are safe, they emphasize. Officials said the spread of rampant misinformation available online has made it much more challenging to turn the tide on the disease.

“I feel like the only options were to get vaccinated or not be in the NBA,” said Wiggins, who added that his entire family remains unvaccinated. Wiggins said he’s cautious about even taking the most basic over-the-counter medicines. A couple of years ago, after a bad allergic reaction to Tylenol, Wiggins said he started carrying an EpiPen.

“I guess to do certain stuff, to work and all that, I guess you don’t own your body,” said Wiggins, who has had a mild case of COVID-19 in the past. “That’s what it comes down to. You want to work in society today, I guess they make the rules of what goes into your body and what you do.”

When many of his Warriors teammates got vaccinated against the coronavirus last spring, Wiggins insisted that he wouldn’t receive the shot unless he was forced. Not until Friday, the last possible day for him to get vaccinated without missing any home games, did Wiggins finally get the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

When he spoke to reporters Monday night for the first time since then, he was still frustrated that he had to get vaccinated to do his job. San Francisco will begin requiring full COVID-19 vaccination Oct. 13 for anyone age 12 and older who attends large indoor events. Had Wiggins remained unvaccinated, he would have lost more than $350,000 for each home game he missed.

Wiggins’ absence would have also hurt the Warriors’ chances of vaulting back into title contention. His 13-point, 16-minute gem in Monday’s preseason win over the Trail Blazers at Moda Center reinforced how vital he is to his team’s success.

Though medical experts told him about the vaccine’s effectiveness, he said he fears long-term issues.

“I noticed a lot of people were getting reactions or injuries from getting the vaccination,” said Wiggins, who did not elaborate on the sources of that information. “Also, I don’t know what it’s going to do to me in 10 years. Gene damage. There’s no studies on whether it’s going to cause cancerous cells.”

The vaccines do not alter genes or cause cancer — and Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley, strongly refuted Wiggins’ comments. "There is no biological, plausible way the vaccine can cause gene damage,” Swartzberg said.

Wiggins also had other concerns about the vaccine. “I don’t know what it’s going to do to my body. There’s a lot of stuff. I feel like I could go on for days about why I didn’t want to get it. Most importantly, I don’t know what’s going to happen or what it’s going to do to my body in 10, 15 years, 20 years. What it will do to my kids or my future kids. But I guess it’s something I had to get done.”

Swartzberg emphasized that vaccines are safe long-term: “If you look at the 120-year history of vaccines in this country every serious reaction that occurs from a vaccination happens within 6 to 8 weeks,” he said. “We just don't see anything in 5 years, 10, years, or even a year down the road from getting a vaccine.”

He added, “There's no evidence the vaccines are going to harm kids or future kids. There's zero biological evidence that's going to alter someone's sperm. Conversely, we do know a pregnant person who gets COVID is at higher risk of a severe outcome and there's also evidence of premature delivery and adverse fetal outcomes.”

About 56% of Americans are fully vaccinated, with 35% having yet to receive a single dose. Roughly 5% of NBA players, including such standouts as Kyrie Irving and Bradley Beal, remained unvaccinated as of last week.

Allergic reactions to the vaccines are extremely rare, and although the side effects of the shots can be unpleasant for some people a day or two afterward, they are minor compared to the health risks, both short-term and long-term, of getting COVID.

Wiggins said getting vaccinated was “a tough decision,” but he opted to receive the shot so he could be paid his full salary. His max contract is due to earn him $31.6 million this season. Had Wiggins missed home games, he would have lost half of that total and potentially torpedoed his career.

The Warriors would likely have had to trade him in a straight salary dump. There are no guarantees that Wiggins, who is fresh off the best season of his career, would have landed on a team that believed in him. With Golden State, he has found a system that maximizes his skills and a head coach in Steve Kerr who empowers him. His perimeter defense and scoring ability should make him an essential cog even after Klay Thompson eventually returns from a torn Achilles tendon.

Many of his teammates defended him when he came under national scrutiny in recent days.

Wiggins spoke to reporters Monday night after the Warriors’ 121-107 exhibition victory in Portland. Late in the third quarter Monday, Wiggins caught a bounce pass in the key from Stephen Curry and threw down a vicious two-handed dunk over the 6-foot-11 Jusuf Nurkic. As Wiggins hung on the rim to avoid landing on Nurkic, his teammates erupted out of their seats, hollering and laughing. It was a celebration rooted in more than a highlight-worthy play.

Last week, the team engaged in a lengthy discussion with Wiggins about his vaccination stance. As Wiggins voiced the reasons for his reluctance to get vaccinated, players said they’d be OK with whatever he chose.

But Swartzberg said Wiggins’ anti-vaccine views, amplified by the publicity that inevitably surrounds high-profile figures, can cause broad harm.

“These athletes have a public obligation,” Swartzberg said. “They don't only have the privilege of collecting a lot of money and getting adulation. Their words carry outsize meaning. Andrew Wiggins is entitled to his beliefs and feelings but he's not entitled to pollute the beliefs of others.”

Chronicle staff writer Aidin Vaziri contributed to this report.

Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: cletourneau@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @Con_Chron

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