June 28, 2021 – If you, a friend or a loved one remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 at this point – for whatever reason – you are at higher risk for dying if you do become infected.
That's the conclusion of a new report The Associated Press released looking at COVID-19 deaths during May 2021.
Of more than 18,000 people who died from COVID-19, for example, only about 150 were fully vaccinated. That's less than 1%.
"Recently I was working in the emergency room [and] I saw a 21-year-old African- American who came in with shortness of breath," says Vino K. Palli, MD, a doctor specializing in emergency medicine, internal medicine and urgent care.
The patient deteriorated rapidly and required ventilation. She was transferred to a specialized hospital for in case she needed what’s known as ECMO treatment, where blood is pumped outside your body to remove carbon dioxide.
"This patient was unvaccinated along with her entire family. This would have been easily preventable," says Palli, who is also founder and CEO of MiDoctor Urgent Care in New York City.
"Vaccine misinformation compounded with vaccine inertia and vaccine access has contributed to this," he says. “Even though we have a surplus amount of vaccines at this time we are only seeing 50 to 55% off completely vaccinated patients.”
The AP report authors also acknowledge that some people who are fully vaccinated can get a “breakthrough infection” of COVID-19. These occurred in fewer than 1,200 of more than 853,000 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in May, or about 0.1%.
The AP came up with these numbers using CDC data. The CDC tracks the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but does not break down rates by vaccination status.
Stronger Argument for Vaccination?
"The fact that only 0.8% of COVID-19 deaths are in the fully vaccinated should persuade those people still hesitant about vaccination," says Hugh Cassiere, MD, medical director of Respiratory Therapy Services at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, NY.
Stuart C. Ray, MD, professor of Medicine and Oncology in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, says. "It seems compelling, even for skeptics, that unvaccinated people represent 99% of those now dying from COVID-19, when they represent less than 50% of the adult population in the USA."
The findings from the study could be more persuasive than previous arguments made in favor of immunization, Ray says. "These recent findings of striking reductions in risk of death in the vaccinated are more directly attributable and harder to ignore or dismiss."
Brian Labus, PhD, of the University of Nevada Las Vegas is less convinced. "While this might change some peoples' minds, it probably won't make a major difference. People have many different reasons for not getting vaccinated, and this is only one of the things they consider."
The study adds information that was not available before, says Labus,
assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the UNLV School of Public Health. "We study the vaccine under tightly-controlled, ideal conditions. This is the evidence that it works as well in the real world as it did in the trials, and that is what is most important in implementing a vaccination program," says Labus.
"The scientific data has honed in on one thing – vaccines are effective in preventing hospitalizations, ICU admissions, ventilations and deaths," Palli says.
"We now know that almost all deaths occurred in patients who were not vaccinated. We also know that all vaccines are effective against various strains that are in circulation right now, including the delta variant, which is rapidly spreading," Palli says.
Cassiere pointed out that the unvaccinated are not only at higher risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, they are at greater risk of spreading the virus, having to be hospitalized, and dying from the infection. Avoiding long-haul COVID-19 is another argument in favor of vaccination, he added.
As of June 28, the CDC reports that 63% of Americans 12 years and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. At the same time, 54% are fully vaccinated.
Although overall rates of U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are down, the outlook may not remain as encouraging.
"I hope I’m wrong about this, but I anticipate that the coming fall and winter will bring increasingly localized versions of similar findings – severe disease and death due to SARS-CoV-2 infection in regions or groups with lower vaccination rates," Ray says.
But, he says. "If this unfortunate surge occurs, the health and economic consequences seem likely to erode much of the remaining hesitancy regarding vaccination."
The rise of more infectious coronavirus variants, such as the delta variant, could throw a wrench into controlling COVID-19 as well. "This isn’t just a domestic issue," Ray says. "We have learned that the world is a small place in pandemic times."
The AP investigators say that their findings support the high efficacy of the vaccine. Also, given the current widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S., they believe many of the recent COVID-19 deaths are preventable.
Public health measures should have continued to protect unvaccinated folks, especially Black Americans, Hispanics and other minorities, Palli says. "Only time will tell if re-opening and abandoning all public health measures by the CDC was premature."