The covid-19 pandemic has receded substantially in the U.S., thanks in part to a successful vaccine campaign. But a new report from the Associated Press released Thursday highlights a clear divide in the country: Americans are still getting seriously sick and dying from the viral illness, but the vast majority of this harm is happening among the not fully vaccinated.
The AP analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on covid-related hospitalizations and deaths reported in May 2021. During that time, there were more than 850,000 documented hospitalizations, with only about 1,200 linked to people who were fully vaccinated (defined as being two weeks after the final scheduled dose). In other words, fully vaccinated people accounted for just about 0.1% of all hospitalizations last month. The death toll was similarly skewed. Around 18,000 deaths were reported in May, but only 150 (0.8%) involved fully vaccinated people.
The figures are based on somewhat incomplete information, since only 45 states regularly report so-called breakthrough infections of vaccinated people. So there may be some deaths and infections among the fully vaccinated that are going unnoticed.
That said, the data aligns with clinical trial results of the FDA-authorized covid-19 vaccines that showed remarkable protection from hospitalization and death; they also mirror the real-world data collected in other highly vaccinated countries. Earlier this week, during a White House briefing, CDC director Rochelle Walensky noted that “nearly every death, especially among adults, due to covid-19 is at this point entirely preventable” as she pointed to the widespread availability of vaccines for those ages 12 and up. As of June 24, 45.6% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, including 53.3% of those over 12.
There have been concerns that the Delta variant of the virus, originally found in India earlier this year, may change the falling trajectory of the pandemic in highly vaccinated places like the U.S. Cases and hospitalizations have risen in the UK in the last few weeks as Delta has become the dominant strain. So far, however, UK hospitalizations and deaths are still at far lower levels than previous peaks. Other research has suggested that the mRNA vaccines most widely used in the U.S. should remain highly effective against Delta and that no variant discovered so far has proven to completely evade the immunity provided by vaccines.
In the U.S., it’s estimated that 20% of new cases are now from Delta, and experts have projected that it will become the dominant strain in a matter of weeks. It’s not certain whether Delta will lead to more cases or serious illness from covid-19 in the U.S. once it is firmly established. But it’s clear that Delta and covid-19 in general will be a far graver threat for the parts of the U.S. and the world where vaccination rates are still lagging.