Does data showing that vaccinated people now make up a majority of COVID deaths in the United States mean the vaccines are ineffective? No, that's not true: As of November 29, 2022, more than three-quarters of Americans had received at least one vaccine dose -- that means the pool of vaccinated people who could potentially die is more than triple that of the unvaccinated.
Vaccinated people now make up a majority of covid deaths
This is what the post looked like on Instagram at the time of writing:
(Source: Instagram screenshot taken Tue Nov 29 at 21:29:15 2022 UTC)
The headline in The Washington Post story was later changed to "Covid is no longer mainly a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Here's why." While it's true that, as the original headline said,
a majority of U.S. COVID deaths are now among the vaccinated, the headline lacks context. The article goes on to fill in the details, but those sharing the social media post aren't providing that information.
Dr. Otto Yang, an infectious disease specialist at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine, told Lead Stories: "You can look at it this way: if everyone wears seat belts while driving, all traffic deaths will be people wearing seat belts. That would not imply that seat belts don't work, only that in some situations seat belts aren't effective."
Dr. Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told Lead Stories that statistics show "[v]accinated and boosted people are less likely to die from COVID."
In a November 29, 2022, email, Dr. Francesca Beaudoin, interim chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Brown University, told Lead Stories that she finds the shared headline misleading:
Looking at absolute numbers, it is not surprising that the number of deaths among vaccinated individuals is higher than those who are unvaccinated at this point in the pandemic. Here's why:
- The vast majority of Americans are vaccinated at this point - 80% of the entire population has received at least one shot. Proportionally, less vaccinated people are dying, but this still adds up when we are talking about 80% of the population. In fact, the risk of death is much higher for someone that is unvaccinated. Even receiving just one shot is highly protective and that still looks to hold true even with current variants.
- Immunity wanes with time. People that were immunized early in the pandemic may be less protected, this is particularly true for older adults or people with certain underlying health conditions.
Beaudoin goes on to say that the original vaccines may be less effective against new variants. A recent report suggests the new bivalent vaccines prevent symptomatic COVID infection, but it's still unknown whether the new boosters are protective against hospitalization and death. Still, that's their goal.
As of November 30, 2022, 12.1% of people within the United States over the age of 5 had received the updated booster, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate.
Yang said it's clear that, in general, vaccinated people have less risk of dying from COVID-19 than the unvaccinated, but added that there are exceptions:
Most of the people dying now are those who have weakened immune systems, such as elderly or transplant patients who take drugs to prevent organ rejection by weakening the immune system purposely. These patients have a very high vaccination rate, but are also the patients in whom the vaccine is most impaired in efficacy. Since they are at higher risk, vaccination rates are very high in these vulnerable patients.
So, if healthy people aren't dying much because they are protected by vaccination and/or prior infection, most deaths are coming from the group of vulnerable patients, most of whom have been vaccinated, simply because the vaccine is not very protective in them due to weakened immune systems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends COVID vaccines for everyone 6 months old and older. It also recommends that individuals stay up to date with COVID vaccines and boosters for their age groups.
In closing his email to Lead Stories, Mokdad said raw death numbers for vaccinated people can be used to misrepresent the truth:
So, yes, if someone ... says 'Among vaccinated people, COVID deaths are higher than among non-vaccinated,' this would be a wrong statement in what it implies. People are mischaracterizing such statistics to attack vaccines. Vaccinated and boosted people are less likely to die from COVID.
Additional Lead Stories fact checks related to COVID-19 can be found here.