Other voices: Yes, it really is a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Some people who have been vaccinated to protect against COVID-19 have nevertheless gotten infected.

These so-called “breakthrough” cases understandably receive a lot of media attention. People feel like this wasn’t supposed to happen.

We shouldn’t lose sight of an important fact, however: The overwhelming number of people going to the hospital from COVID-19 are unvaccinated — and it’s not even close.

Unvaccinated people range from 94% to 99.85% of those hospitalized for COVID-19, according to a report by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, which examined data from the 24 states (and D.C.) that report detailed data on breakthrough infections.

A New York Times study of 40 states had similar findings.

The age range of hospitalized patients is another indicator the unvaccinated are driving the latest surge. In North Carolina, the number of patients age 20 to 49 are at the highest point during the pandemic, according to the N.C. Department of Health & Human Services. This is because seniors are vaccinated, having been rightly prioritized for the shots because they are most vulnerable; 87% of people 65 and older are vaccinated in North Carolina.

In summary, the data support health officials who call this latest wave of COVID-19, driven by the delta variant, a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

The numbers also present a clear action plan for Americans over 12 years old: Take the shot against COVID-19 if you are medically able.

Discussion of breakthrough cases could mislead people into thinking the unvaccinated and the fully vaccinated have similar risks, which is dangerous misinformation.

Part of the problem is that we do not talk often enough about what the COVID-19 vaccines can do, and can’t do.

Of the three available vaccines, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and J&J, none of them were ever promised to be 100% effective at preventing COVID-19. So, some people will be vaccinated and still get the disease. This is not only likely but statistically inevitable when we are talking about a vaccine that 167 million Americans have taken (counting just the fully vaccinated). Even if a small percentage of the vaccinated become infected, that constitutes millions of people.

Just as inevitably, some of these people will share their stories. That is why we must use hard data to put their experiences in context.

The delta variant adds a new wrinkle. A very early study suggests that the current crop of vaccines are less effective in preventing infection compared to previous strains. However, even this research finds that the vaccines are extremely capable of reducing COVID-19’s worst effects and keeping people out of the hospital.

This is important, not only for the individual infected but for our hospital systems. Intensive care units are filling up across the state and nation, as they did in the pandemic’s previous peak, in January and February.

In Cumberland County, seven patients were on ventilators at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center on July 26, a number that jumped to 25 by this past Tuesday, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

Nationwide, the surge is already causing some hospitals in high-infection areas to pause elective surgeries or reroute patients from emergency rooms to other hospitals. Surges also cause many people to avoid emergency rooms altogether, even when they need care.

This less-than-optimal care leads to bad outcomes for non-COVID patients throughout healthcare systems, a phenomenon sometimes called “excess deaths.”

A study published last month in the Journal of Hospital Medicine found that, despite unplanned hospitalizations declining, the patient mortality rate rose from 2.9% to as high as 3.5% during COVID-19 surges.

This is all avoidable.

But we must encourage everyone around us to use the means to avoid it — take the safe, effective and readily available vaccine.

— Fayetteville Observer