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Why Older Americans Are Dying Despite Vaccines

The unfortunate headline in The Washington Post last month was alarming:

“COVID deaths no longer overwhelmingly among unvaccinated.”

The paper went on to report that “Nearly two-thirds of people who died during the omicron surge were [age] 75 and older.”

Since then, our primary care doctors in Delray Beach have fielded a number of phone calls from concerned patients wondering if the vaccines are useless.

What the numbers mean

First of all, the figures the paper used came from its examination conducted in January and February of this year, when the original omicron variant was at its peak.

Second, the unvaccinated are still dying in far greater numbers than the vaccinated.

“The vast majority of patients—anywhere from 75 percent and greater—we’re seeing is primarily unvaccinated individuals who are getting COVID and wind up in the hospital severely ill and are currently dying,” Mahdee Sobhanie, an assistant professor of internal medicine and an infectious disease physician at The Ohio State University, told ABC News.

Third, it’s not surprising that older Americans are dying despite being vaccinated. As we’ve repeatedly stressed, vaccines do not create a magic shield that prevents infection. They simply teach the body how to respond to this new invader it’s never seen before. But it’s inevitable that older individuals might still succumb to the virus.

Underlying causes

As AARP noted, “Many chronic diseases put people at greater risk for a serious case of COVID-19, and emerging research shows these illnesses can still be a disadvantage even after vaccination.” This is especially true because such underlying health conditions are estimated to affect 80 percent of older Americans.

Another reason is that older adults have a less robust immune system, making it harder for them to fight off the virus even with the aid of vaccines.

AARP pointed to three studies that bear the numbers out. One, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), showed that about 70 percent of breakthrough infections that required hospitalization occurred among adults 65 and older.

Another, published in the journal The Lancet Microbe, found that the majority of patients hospitalized with severe breakthrough cases at the Yale New Haven Health System from early August to mid-October of 2021 had an average age of 71.5.

The third, from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), found that more than two-thirds (69 percent) of breakthrough COVID-19 hospitalizations from June to September occurred among people ages 65 and older, despite this population having the highest vaccination rates.

Vaccines work

There’s another, more unsettling reason why older Americans are more at risk. As The Post put it, “As more people are infected with the virus, the more people it will kill, including a greater number who are vaccinated but among the most vulnerable.”

In other words, it’s a factor of the sheer numbers of Americans who continue to become infected with this highly opportunistic virus. Resistance to vaccines and widespread use of masks has given the virus multiple opportunities to mutate and become more effective at infecting people. While 69 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, that still leaves 31 percent who are not.

While it’s true that “just getting it over with” and getting COVID-19 does confer some measure of immunity, it’s also true that those who have become infected can do so again, multiple times.

“We know that immunity triggered by infection is only good, not great,” Kent Sepkowitz, a physician and infectious disease expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, wrote in a recent CNN editorial.

“Indeed, my adult son has come down with a second omicron illness only four months after his first. He is less sick, but sick—despite youth, his previous recent infection, three messenger RNA vaccinations, and a proper respect for how to avoid infection.”

It’s still here

Despite recent headlines—and the fervent desire of everyone on the planet—the pandemic is not “over.”

We’ve just passed the sad milestone of one million Americans who have died from COVID-19. Then there are those who haven’t died but have become seriously ill from contracting the virus. Not to mention the others who are suffering the effects of long COVID months or years after becoming sick.

According to the latest reports, about 300 Americans are still dying from COVID-19 every day. The omicron subvariants continue to spread (the highly transmissible BA.2.12.1 omicron subvariant is the current dominant strain, with other newer subvariants starting to spread), and confirmed cases and hospitalizations have begun to spike in recent weeks.

The best way to protect yourself is to continue with the common-sense measures you’ve been following all along. Get vaccinated and boosted, avoid crowded indoor areas, and wear a high-quality mask (the N-95 is the gold standard) when you’re indoors in crowded places with poor ventilation.

“I have gray hair myself,” infectious disease expert William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University, told AARP. He runs his errands early in the morning when fewer people are around, avoids large indoor group events, and wears a mask in indoor public settings. And yes, he is fully vaccinated.

For those who are older and have a chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or obesity, “those things stack the cards a little bit in favor of you getting severe disease, should you become infected,” he said, adding, “It’s still a time to be cautious.”

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