99% of COVID deaths are now of unvaccinated people, experts say

With the delta variant running rampant in the US, COVID cases are on the rise in what is now a "pandemic of the unvaccinated," the CDC says.

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COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising again as the extremely contagious delta variant of the coronavirus takes hold as the dominant strain in the US. In some parts of the country, there are more hospitalizations and cases of COVID than there were last winter, the peak of the pandemic. 

The vast majority of people being hospitalized with COVID and dying from the disease haven't been fully vaccinated, according to public health officials. More than 97% of hospitalizations from COVID right now are of unvaccinated people, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press briefing Friday, adding: "There is a clear message that is coming through: This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated." In early July, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical advisor, told CBS that 99.2% of COVID deaths are now of unvaccinated people.

In Texas, 99.5% of people who died from COVID from February through July 14 weren't vaccinated, per the Texas Tribune's reporting on preliminary data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. (Vaccines became available to adults in the state at the end of March. At-risk people were able to get them sooner.) In southern Missouri, an area that leads the nation as a delta variant hot spot, "almost every COVID-19 patient in Springfield's hospitals is unvaccinated," the Atlantic reported. The dozen or so that were vaccinated, according to the report, were elderly or immunocompromised -- people for whom studies have shown vaccines are likely not as effective

Scott Gottlieb, head of the Food and Drug Administration during the Trump administration, told CBS Sunday that the delta variant of the coronavirus is so contagious that most people will get it if they haven't been vaccinated or previously infected with COVID. 

"And for most people who get this delta variant, it's going to be the most serious virus that they get in their lifetime in terms of the risk of putting them in the hospital," Gottlieb said.

No vaccine is 100% 

The three COVID vaccines available in the US -- Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson -- have proven efficacy against all variants of the coronavirus currently circulating, including delta. The vaccines vary slightly in their efficacy based on clinical trials, but all exceeded the typical efficacy rates for vaccines when they rolled out. For scale, the flu shot is about 40% to 60% effective each season. 

Importantly, all three vaccines are effective against severe disease caused by delta.

In an interview with PBS, Fauci said that "breakthrough cases," or people who test positive for COVID after getting vaccinated, are to be expected, but that vaccinated people who get infected "generally have either no symptoms, or very mild symptoms as opposed to going on and developing significant disease."

"That is the good news about it [and] the sobering news, where a lot of people are getting infected," Fauci said.

As of May, the CDC is only tracking breakthrough cases of COVID-19 if they result in hospitalization or death. Some health experts disagree with that, saying that in order to get a full picture of how well our vaccines are working, and to guide whether or not we need boosters, we should keep track of all cases.

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Vaccine risks vs. benefits, and a drop in life expectancy 

Many people have chosen not to get vaccinated because of the newness of the coronavirus vaccines and the fact that the vaccines have emergency use authorization from the FDA as opposed to regular authorization. Although all the vaccines went through clinical trials and have continued to prove to be safe, people's wariness about side effects may keep them from getting vaccinated. 

The reported side effects that have caused the most concern are all exceedingly rare, have been investigated by health officials, and continue to be monitored. They include the risk of myocarditis, or heart inflammation, in Pfizer or Moderna vaccines (occurring mostly in men under age 30, with the majority of cases being mild) as well as a blood-clotting disorder and autoimmune disorder associated with Johnson & Johnson's vaccine.

In a meeting last month, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices found that the benefits of mRNA vaccines outweighed the risk of myocarditis because they ultimately prevented hospitalizations, even in men under age 30 after they've been given the second dose of an mRNA vaccine. As of June 11 when ACIP's data was collected, there were 636 reported myocarditis cases out of 133 million second doses of an mRNA vaccine. 

The extremely rare blood clotting disorder associated with Johnson & Johnson's vaccine prompted some health experts to advise women under age 50 (the group that was affected in most cases) to get a Pfizer or Moderna shot instead if one is available, due to the ACIP's weighing of benefits and risks for that population. The risk of severe COVID in women under 50 is low on average, so it's worthwhile for them to wait for one of the other vaccines to be available rather than going with J&J. It's worth noting, however, that the risk of blood clotting after J&J vaccination in the general population remains very low, barely over 1 in a million.

Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neurological disorder linked as another rare side effect of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, occurs in about 8 out of every 1 million doses of the vaccine, according to the CDC, and the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks. People who have a history of the neurological disorder, however, should choose an mRNA vaccine.

Vaccines, like other types of medicine, almost always carry a specific risk-benefit profile. The reason why public health officials urge vaccination against COVID-19 is simply because of how severe a disease it can become, and the number of people it's killed. In a recent report, the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics found that life expectancy in the US fell by 1.5 years in 2020, which is the biggest drop since World War II, NPR reported. Black and Hispanic communities experienced the biggest declines in life expectancy.

Watch this: What to do if you lose your vaccination card, and how to never lose it again

Infertility, microchips and other misinformation 

Another reason some people have chosen not to get vaccinated is the misinformation about the vaccines that continues to circulate online. There's no evidence for a claim that links the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to female infertility. Many people who got an mRNA vaccine have been able to get pregnant after their shots, or were pregnant when they get the vaccine. Another falsehood is that the vaccines contain a microchip

President Joe Biden and US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy provoked a heated conversation about the role of social media companies in the spread of false public health information recently, with the president saying that tech companies are "killing people" by allowing misinformation to spread online.

Amid a flurry of conflicting opinions about vaccines and COVID, though, one hard fact can't be ignored: the number of unvaccinated individuals getting sick or dying from COVID-19. And as people in COVID-ridden communities see a surge in illness, hospitalization or death of community members, many are choosing to get vaccinated, even if they declined before.

At the briefing Friday, Jeff Zients, head of the White House COVID-19 task force, said that the five states with the highest number of COVID cases -- Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Nevada -- had more people getting newly vaccinated than the national average.

"Vaccinating more and more Americans each day is an individual-by-individual, community-by-community effort," Zients said. "And this type of localized, person-to-person approach takes some time, but it is working." 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.