Misinformation on Covid Vaccinations Abound

The share of COVID-19 deaths among those who are vaccinated has risen. In fall 2021, about 3 in 10 adults dying of COVID-19 were vaccinated or boosted. But by January 2022, as we showed in an analysis on the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, about 4 in 10 deaths were vaccinated or boosted. By April 2022, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data show that about 6 in 10 adults dying of COVID-19 were vaccinated or boosted. Anti-vaxxers are using this data to support their claims the vaccine doesn’t work, but that is not the case.

It would misrepresent the finding to say it is evidence against vaccination. This finding underscores the importance of staying up-to-date on boosters. The assertion that vaccines are ineffective because the majority of people dying from COVID-19 are vaccinated is flawed. The rate of death among the vaccinated is still significantly lower than the unvaccinated. The vaccinated comprise the majority of fatalities because such a high percentage of the population has been vaccinated.

What explains the rising share of COVID-19 deaths among vaccinated people? 

Several factors are at play here, including a rising share of the vaccinated population, waning immune protection and low uptake of boosters, and changes in immunity among the unvaccinated. New variants combined with a reduction in masking and other non-pharmaceutical interventions may also lead to more transmission, which can, in turn, lead to more deaths.

As a group, the unvaccinated remain far more vulnerable to the worst consequences of infection — and are far more likely to die — than people who are vaccinated. They are significantly more at risk than people who have received a booster shot.

“It still absolutely more dangerous to be unvaccinated than vaccinated”” said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies COVID-19 mortality.”“A pandemic of — and by — the unvaccinated is not correct. People still need to take care in terms of prevention and action if they become symptomatic.””“It’s still absolutely more dangerous to be unvaccinated than vaccinated,” said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies COVID-19 mortality. “A pandemic of — and by — the unvaccinated is not correct. People still need to take care of prevention and action if they become symptomatic.”

A fundamental explanation for the rise in deaths among the vaccinated is that COVID-19 fatalities are again concentrated among the elderly.

During the early rollout of vaccines, vaccinated people represented a small share of total deaths. Still, experts warned that the share would likely rise simply because vaccinated people represented a growing population share. In other words, if 100% of people in the U.S. were immunized, vaccinated people would mean 100% of COVID-19 deaths. Similarly, as the share of the population with a booster rose somewhat during 2022, the share of fatalities among boosted people also rose. COVID-19 vaccines are very effective at preventing severe illness and death, but they are not perfect, so deaths among vaccinated people will still occur.

Vaccinated people now make up the majority of the population – 79% of adults have completed at least the primary series – and the latest CDC data show that vaccinated people also now represent the majority of COVID-19 deaths. There are many more vaccinated people than there are unvaccinated people, and vaccinated and boosted people are, on average, older and more likely to have underlying health conditions that put them at risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes. That’s why, when the CDC adjusts for some of these factors (age and population size), we still see that unvaccinated people are at much greater risk of death and other severe outcomes than people the same age who have stayed up-to-date on boosters. Older people are at greater risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19 than younger people, but vaccines and boosters still lower that risk substantially.

CDC and other researchers have shown that protection from COVID-19 vaccines can diminish or wane over time, and booster doses are needed to maintain a robust immune response. Although the data we use in this analysis are not broken out by time since the last vaccination, given the plateauing vaccination rate, many of the vaccinated people who died of COVID-19 likely had the primary series or a booster many months or even over a year earlier, meaning they were less protected against severe illness than they once were

Changes in the unvaccinated population could also explain the fall in the share of deaths that are among unvaccinated people. By this far into the pandemic, it is estimated that many unvaccinated people have had COVID-19 at least once. While hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated people have needlessly died from COVID, those who survived may have gained some immune protection against the virus that can help protect them against severe outcomes when they have subsequent infections. However, this protection from a past infection can also diminish over time, so it is still recommended that unvaccinated people with prior COVID-19 infections get vaccinated and stay up-to-date on boosters.

Older Patients have declining immune systems

It’s a natural part of aging that our immune system experiences a gradual decline in function, known as immunosenescence. This happens due to several factors, including:

  • Thymus involution: This tiny organ produces T cells crucial for identifying and fighting off pathogens. However, the thymus shrinks with age, decreasing production of these vital immune cells.

  • Changes in T cells: Existing T cells also become less effective with age. Their ability to divide and respond to new threats diminishes, making them less efficient at fighting infections.

  • Inflammation: Chronic low-grade inflammation, known as inflammaging, increases with age. While it can help fight off some threats, it can also damage tissues and weaken the immune system’s overall response.

  • Other factors: Other age-related changes, like altered gut microbiome and hormonal shifts, can further contribute to immune system decline.

This decline doesn’t mean older adults are defenseless, but it does make them more susceptible to certain health issues:

  • Increased risk of infections: Pneumonia, influenza, and shingles are more common in older adults due to a weakened immune response.

  • Slower wound healing: The immune system also plays a role in tissue repair, so wounds may take longer to heal as we age.

  • Autoimmune diseases: In some cases, a malfunctioning immune system can mistakenly attack healthy cells, leading to autoimmune diseases.

  • Reduced vaccine effectiveness: While still beneficial, vaccines might not provide the same level of protection in older adults due to the diminished immune response.

However, it’s important to remember that this decline is a process, and individual experiences can vary greatly. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition, regular exercise, and adequate sleep can help support the immune system and boost its resilience even as we age. Additionally, staying up-to-date on vaccinations and seeking prompt medical attention for any health concerns is crucial for older adults.

Unfortunately, the Internet spreads misinformation like wildfire. This is a lesson for the healthcare industry and DTC marketers.