Posts on social media claiming that fully vaccinated people “fill” morgues and hospitals are based on inadequate reasoning; unvaccinated people are actually over ten times more likely to die

ASSERTION

“they have to change the definition of what it means to be fully vaccinated” “40% of C19 deaths last week […] was fully vaccinated, […] it is a jump of 51.2% ”

DETAILS

Incorrect justification: The claim is based on comparison of the number of COVID-19 deaths between vaccinated and unvaccinated persons. However, these two groups have different sizes and include people of different ages and health profiles. To account for these differences, one should compare the proportion of COVID-19 deaths in each group, not the raw numbers
Insufficient support: The claim appears to compare two death tolls: groundbreaking COVID-19 deaths and total COVID-19 deaths. However, there is no evidence that this data was collected using the same methods. It cannot be assumed that they are comparable. Moreover, the figures in the claim contradict available figures from several states.
Misleading: The allegation claimed that the CDC is changing the definition of “fully vaccinated” to limit it to individuals who received booster shots. While the CDC acknowledged that it was considering such a change, no decision has been taken per October 25, 2021, contrary to what the claim suggests.

KEY TAKE AWAY

Booster shots aim to strengthen the declining COVID-19 immunity over time. Although US public health authorities are considering a change to the definition of “fully vaccinated”, no change was made to this definition per October 25, 2021. But even without booster shots, fully vaccinated people are still 11 times less likely to die of disease compared to unvaccinated individuals. Records of COVID-19 deaths in September and October 2021 from several states indicate that fully vaccinated people account for only about 20% of COVID-19 deaths.

FULL REQUIREMENTS: “they’re pushing for boosters because hospitals and morgues are filling up with fully vaccinated people. So they have to change the definition of what it means to be fully vaccinated” “40% of C19 deaths last week […] was fully vaccinated, […] it is a jump of 51.2% ”

REVIEW

The number of COVID-19 deaths increased again in the United States from July 2021 to mid-September 2021, due to concerns about the spread of the Delta variant and vaccine-induced immunity declining over time. While data show that vaccines are safe and effective against COVID-19, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the administration of booster shots to boost vaccine-induced immunity.

Some used the increase in COVID-19 deaths as evidence that vaccines are ineffective. For example, author Elijah Schaffer claimed in a tweet and on Instagram that fully vaccinated individuals accounted for 40% of COVID-19 deaths in the week prior to his posting on social media. He also claimed that the 40% represented a 51% jump from the previous week, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This claim was also spread by US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene according to NBC News.

Schaffer further argued that health authorities needed to change the definition of “fully vaccinated” to include only those who received the booster syringe, as a way to hide the alleged ineffectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. His reasoning implies that those who are currently fully vaccinated will be considered unvaccinated.

However, his claims are not supported by existing evidence, and his analysis of COVID-19 deaths by vaccination status is deficient, as we explain below.

The claim that the CDC changed its definition of full vaccination is false. In an update on October 15, 2021, the CDC stated that individuals are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second injection of a two-dose vaccine (Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech) or two weeks after the injection of a one-dose vaccine ( Johnson & Johnson). On October 22, 2021, the head of the CDC declared “We may need to update our definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ in the future”. Therefore, no such decision had been taken on 23 October at the time of Schaffer’s position.

Schaffer did not provide sources to support his claim about the proportion of fully vaccinated individuals among COVID-19 deaths. To confirm his claim, Health Feedback turned to analyzing CDC data on COVID-19 mortality.

The CDC indicates the number of groundbreaking COVID-19 deaths, ie COVID-19 deaths, that occur in fully vaccinated individuals. On October 18, 2021, the CDC had counted 10,857 COVID-19 deaths due to breakthrough infections. One week earlier, that number was 7,178, which is 3,679 fewer deaths. This actually represents an increase of 51.2% from one week to the next. During the same time frame, the CDC also reported an additional 10,010 COVID-19 deaths. By comparing both figures, we found that COVID-19 deaths among vaccinated individuals appear to represent 37% of the total number of COVID-19 deaths, a percentage fairly close to Schaffer’s claim.

However, his analysis suffers from several shortcomings. At least two additional parameters must be considered to determine if the vaccines are effective.

First, as the vaccinated population grows, we expect to see the absolute number of vaccinated people becoming ill increase, even with effective vaccines, because no vaccine provides 100% protection. For this reason, the proportion of COVID-19 deaths between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated population needs to be compared.

To illustrate why this is necessary, consider a population where everyone has been vaccinated against COVID-19. As explained before, COVID-19 vaccines significantly reduce the risk of becoming ill and dying, but they do not completely eliminate this risk. Therefore, a certain proportion of those vaccinated will still die from COVID-19. In this scenario, where everyone has been vaccinated, 100% of COVID-19 deaths would occur among vaccinated individuals. Therefore, the discovery that most of the COVID-19 deaths come from vaccinated people does not in itself say anything about the effectiveness of the vaccines. Biostatistician Lucy D’Agostino McGowan explained this concept in a Twitter thread.

Secondly, the demographics of the vaccinated and unvaccinated groups must be taken into account. The COVID-19 vaccination campaign started by vaccinating the most vulnerable to the disease. Therefore, they are overrepresented in the fully vaccinated population. While 57.6% of the general population is fully vaccinated per. October 23, 2021, 84.9% of people are over 65 years old. This means that the fully vaccinated population is older and more fragile than the unvaccinated population. Therefore, we cannot directly compare the COVID-19 mortality between the two.

Although Schaffer did not take these two factors into account, the CDC did so by conducting their analysis of the number of COVID-19 deaths among unvaccinated and vaccinated people, as reported by 16 U.S. jurisdictions. To account for the difference in population size, as discussed earlier, they calculated the proportion of COVID-19 deaths in each group.

And to take into account the age difference between both populations, the results were age-standardized. On the latest date available in the study, the researchers found that the mortality rate among the unvaccinated group was 9.14 deaths per 100,000 people. In comparison, it was 0.74 deaths per 100,000 among fully vaccinated. In other words, taking into account the difference in population size and age, the COVID-19 mortality rate for fully vaccinated individuals was 12 times lower than for unvaccinated individuals.

Another problem is that Schaffer’s posts do not provide information that addresses this issue of data collection methods. When comparing two death rates, it is crucial that they are obtained using the same methods, such as a similar exhaustive and timeline of death reporting. However, this information is not available and therefore it is unknown whether the percentages calculated by Schaffer represent the true difference in the number of deaths between vaccinated and unvaccinated persons.

To verify the claim, Health Feedback took the approach of examining state-level data where vaccination status of persons who died of COVID-19 was available, as provided by several states.

For example, Tennessee reported that through September 2021, groundbreaking COVID-19 cases represented only 15% of the monthly COVID-19 death toll. In Louisiana, fully vaccinated individuals accounted for only 26% of COVID-19 deaths from October 14 to 20, 2021. Fully vaccinated individuals accounted for 20% of COVID-19 deaths in September 2021 in Oregon, and they were 24 % in South Carolina during the same period. From October 1 to October 18, California reported that 17.5% of COVID-19 deaths came from fully vaccinated individuals.

In short, what data we have at the state level contradicts Schaffer’s claim that fully vaccinated people make up the majority of COVID-19 deaths.

CONCLUSION

In summary, U.S. health authorities recommend booster shots to counteract declining vaccine-induced immunity, but that does not mean vaccines do not work. Allegations that fully vaccinated individuals account for 40% of COVID-19 deaths are due to incorrect analysis, as it does not take into account the difference in population size and demographics between the vaccinated and unvaccinated population. When done correctly, fully vaccinated people are more than ten times less likely to die from COVID-19 than unvaccinated people.

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