Because you can still get COVID-19 if you’re vaccinated, some people believe the vaccines don’t work.
But COVID-19 vaccines are, and have always been, highly effective at reducing hospitalizations and deaths. In the first year vaccines were available (Dec. 8, 2020 through Dec. 8, 2021), the vaccines prevented an estimated 15-20 million deaths globally. In the United States, through April 2022, it’s estimated more than 300,000 COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented if all adults were vaccinated.
It’s ideal when vaccines prevent infection, but the most important goal of a vaccine is to prevent severe disease. Two examples are the tetanus and polio vaccines: Neither prevents infection, but both excel at preventing severe illness from infection.
When the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines first became available they prevented more than 90% of symptomatic infections. This is amazing. Virus mutations that evade immunity (especially Omicron and its subvariants) have led to more breakthrough cases. But these mutations have not outsmarted the vaccines when it comes to severe illness. The vaccines’ effectiveness at keeping people out of the hospital remains high, and the evidence of that is overwhelming.
Let’s first take a look at recent national data—a snapshot from August of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths.
In August, people who were unvaccinated were:
- Six times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who had received a primary vaccine series (age 6 months and older)
- Five times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than those who were up to date on their vaccinations (age 18 and older)
- Eight times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who had received a primary series plus at least one booster dose (age 5 and older)
- 12 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who had received a primary series plus two or more booster doses (age 50 and older)
Now let’s go further back and take a bird’s eye view.
Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 1.07 million people in the U.S. and 8,680 people in Oregon have died from COVID-19. However, many health experts believe “excess deaths” are a better indicator of the impact of the pandemic than deaths directly attributed to COVID-19. Excess deaths are defined as the difference between actual deaths and expected deaths during the same time period.
The graph below shows the percentage of excess deaths in the U.S. since the pandemic started. Click on the graph to visit Ourworldindata and explore excess deaths in countries around the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there have been 1,214,136 excess deaths in the U.S. since Feb. 1, 2020.
The CDC graph below shows the weekly number of deaths (from all causes) in Oregon compared to the average expected number of deaths (orange line). Note that for nearly every week since the beginning of the pandemic, deaths in Oregon have exceeded expectations. CDC estimates there have been 14,279 excess deaths in Oregon since the start of the pandemic.
According to an analysis earlier this year by the Brown School of Public Health, 3,798 out of 5,999 (63%) of COVID-19-related deaths (through April 2022) could have been prevented if every eligible adult been vaccinated.
The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) graph below shows:
- At the peak of the Delta surge in September 2021, unvaccinated adults in Oregon were approximately eight times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who have received all recommended vaccines and boosters.
- At the peak of the Omicron variant surge in January 2022, unvaccinated adults in Oregon were approximately nine times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who have received all recommended vaccines and boosters.
Similar trends hold nationally. The CDC graph below shows death rates in people 6 months and older who are not vaccinated (black line) compared with those who received at least a primary vaccine series (blue line).
Additionally, during the peak of the Omicron surge from January through March 2022, people age 5 and older who were unvaccinated were 20 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who received a primary vaccine series and at least one booster dose.
Older populations are the most vulnerable to severe disease and death from COVID-19. The CDC graph below shows that people age 50 and older who were vaccinated and received at least two booster doses have the best COVID-19 health outcomes. (Data are from April – Sept. 2022)
Since the pandemic started, there have been more than 5.4 million hospital admissions with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. That number could have been lower if more people got vaccinated.
The OHA chart below shows in Oregon:
- At the peak of the Delta variant surge in August 2021, unvaccinated adults in Oregon were approximately 10 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than those who received all recommended vaccines and boosters.
- At the peak of the Omicron variant surge in January 2022, unvaccinated adults in Oregon were approximately nine times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than those who received all recommended vaccines and boosters.
Risks vs. benefits of vaccination
We’ve discussed at length the risks of not getting vaccinated, but what about the risks associated with getting vaccinated? Do the benefits of being vaccinated against COVID-19 outweigh the risks?
The answer is a resounding “yes”!
COVID-19 vaccines help prevent a significant number of hospitalizations and deaths. They have saved tens of millions of lives around the world. Vaccination also likely reduces the risk of developing long COVID, which inflicts as many as one in five people who become infected. Additionally, severe side effects from COVID-19 vaccines are rare.
- One in 311 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19.
- COVID-19 is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. behind heart disease and cancer.
- Anaphylaxis (immediate allergic reaction) after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination is rare and has occurred at a rate of approximately five cases per 1 million vaccine doses administered.
- Reports of death after vaccination are rare. Nine deaths in the U.S. have been causally associated to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
As of Oct. 20, 2022, 1,036 cases of potential myocarditis among people under 18 have been reported. Of these cases, the CDC has confirmed 687 as myocarditis, and 253 cases remain under review.
Confirmed cases of myocarditis after receiving COVID-19 vaccinations:
- Ages 5–11: 22 cases after 21,638,046 doses administered
- Ages 12–15: 357 cases after 24,480,644 doses administered
- Ages 16–17: 308 cases after 13,429,039 doses administered
“Severe side effects from COVID-19 vaccines have been rare, but hospitalization associated with COVID-19 has been common,” said Paul Cieslak, medical director for communicable diseases and immunizations at OHA. “This is why we’ve recommended vaccination—particularly for older people and those with medical conditions that put them at risk.”