Fact-checking vaccinated COVID deaths claim

People are misinterpreting an analysis of CDC data reported in the Washington Post to falsely claim vaccines are no longer effective at preventing COVID deaths.

COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2021 after heart disease and cancer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in April. 

Recently, some people online have questioned the COVID-19 vaccine’s ability to prevent virus-related deaths. Citing an article published in the Washington Post on Nov. 23, many people have claimed that vaccinated people are now more likely to die from the virus than those who are unvaccinated, contradicting longstanding public health guidance. 

The Washington Post article’s headline previously read: “Vaccinated people now make up a majority of covid deaths.” It has since been changed to: “Covid is no longer mainly a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Here’s why.”

Several readers sent VERIFY the article and asked whether vaccinated people are now more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who have not received the coronavirus vaccine. 

THE QUESTION

Are vaccinated people more likely to die from COVID-19 than unvaccinated people?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, vaccinated people are not more likely to die from COVID-19 than unvaccinated people. Data show people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 still have a far lower risk of death than unvaccinated people.

WHAT WE FOUND

People online are sharing the Washington Post analysis out of context. While a greater number of people who died from COVID-19 in August were vaccinated, people who received the COVID-19 vaccine still have a far lower risk of death than unvaccinated people – which the Washington Post notes in its article. 

VERIFY spoke with Kaiser Family Foundation Vice President Cynthia Cox, who conducted the CDC data analysis for the Washington Post.

Cox analyzed CDC data from 30 jurisdictions in the U.S. that report every COVID-19 death. She looked at whether the person who died was unvaccinated, vaccinated, or vaccinated and boosted. August is the most recent full month of data available.  

She found that, in August 2022, 22% of people who died from COVID-19 in these jurisdictions had received the primary series – typically the first two doses – of the COVID-19 vaccine, 36% had received at least one booster, and 42% were unvaccinated. 

That means 58%, or approximately 6 in 10, people who died from COVID-19 that month were vaccinated or boosted. That’s a significant increase from the fall of 2021, when fewer than 3 in 10 people who died were vaccinated or boosted, Cox said. 

But there are important caveats to this data. The first is that a large majority of the U.S. population – nearly 69% – has received at least their primary series of the COVID-19 vaccine, CDC data show. Experts previously warned that vaccinated people would represent a rising share of COVID-19 deaths as more people got the vaccine, Cox said. 

Additionally, people who are at greater risk of dying from COVID-19, such as those who are older and have underlying health conditions, are more likely to have been vaccinated and boosted, Cox said. 

“As we get older, especially over 65…our risk of severe disease or death goes up a lot, which is why it’s so important for those populations to get vaccinated,” Kawsar Talaat, M.D., an infectious disease expert and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said.

And when the CDC adjusts data for age, vaccinated and boosted people are still at a lower risk of dying compared to unvaccinated people. The Washington Post article also makes note of this. 

Among people 12 and older, the risk of dying from COVID-19 was nearly 15 times lower for those who received a bivalent booster compared to unvaccinated people in September 2022. 

There are other factors contributing to the uptick in deaths among vaccinated people, too, including waning immunity from vaccines – meaning a loss in effectiveness over time, Cox said. The CDC has reported for months that protection against the coronavirus after two vaccine doses wanes over time. 

In a study published on Nov. 22, the CDC found that protection against COVID-19 illness increased by 28 to 56% for adults who got updated boosters versus those who only received the original vaccines. The study did not look at hospitalizations or deaths. 

A VERIFY analysis of CDC data on the last date available, Sept. 25, found among deaths reported that week, vaccinated people were 5 times less likely to die than those who are unvaccinated, and people who received the bivalent booster were 19 times less likely to die than the unvaccinated. 

Only about 12% of the population 5 and older have received an updated bivalent booster.  

“I see the main takeaway from this data as more people need to get boosted,” Cox said. “We know that the uptake of boosters is too low.”

But she said it’s a “misrepresentation” of the data to say the analysis is evidence against getting the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“It contributes to what we already know – that vaccination doesn’t last forever,” she said. “The protection from [vaccines] does start to wane over time, which is why the CDC is recommending that folks, particularly people who are at higher risk, get boosted.”

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