RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Yes, vaccinated people now account for the majority of COVID-19 deaths these days.
But that fact is also easy to read the wrong way.
“It’s a true but inaccurate statement,” said Dr. David Weber, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
The Washington Post reported last week that 58 percent of COVID deaths in August were in people who were vaccinated or boosted.
That’s a big jump in less than a year: In September 2021, vaccinated people made up just 23 percent of deaths.
It falls in line with a trend CBS 17 News spotted — and a claim we debunked — in August, when we reported that more vaccinated people than unvaccinated were dying of COVID.
“It’s all how you look at the numbers,” Weber said.
Opponents of the vaccines have latched onto those claims on social media as proof that the shots are ineffective.
But Weber says that’s not the case at all.
“It would be like saying most deaths in car crashes come with people wearing seat belts,” Weber said. “That’s because almost everyone wears seat belts. The correct statement is, how many lives do seat belts save? And that would be the correct statement for the vaccines.”
More than 80 percent of people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, and nearly 70 percent have completed the primary series, and would meet the definition of being fully vaccinated.
So from a numbers perspective, it makes sense that vaccinated people account for more deaths.
But there are even more explanations.
“It’s a combination of reasons that it appears that more of the people dying are vaccinated than not vaccinated,” Weber said.
The people who face the highest risk of death from COVID are the oldest among us. They also have the highest vaccination rates.
“The people who are elderly and immunocompromised are going to be the majority of the people impacted by the disease and getting at risk for severe disease,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist at RTI International. “And so it’s following that trend.”
And the statistics cited by the newspaper don’t account for age. But the ones from the state Department of Health and Human Services do.
The age-adjusted per capita death rate in North Carolina for unvaccinated people is 1.58 for every 100,000 people, compared to 0.25 for the vaccinated and 0.17 for the boosted.
In other words, unvaccinated people in the state were more than nine times more likely to die of COVID than boosted people were, NCDHHS data show.
The protection given by the vaccines also wanes over time — hence, the need for boosters, such as the new bivalent booster which so far been slow to gain traction.
“So there’s this whole spectrum of being vaccinated and who’s vaccinated and how vaccinated are you, and how boosted are you?” MacDonald said.
Only 12 percent of people over 5 years old have received that omicron-specific booster, and the Biden Administration has launched a push to get more people boosted before the holidays.
“The ancestral base vaccine is not as good against the new omicron variant,” Weber said. “You still get protection against dying, but it’s not near as good as either being booster with the older vaccine, or even better would be the new bivalent vaccine.”
It raises an important question.
The vaccines have been widely available for nearly two years.
So why are people still misinterpreting these results?
Dr. Lisa Pickett, the chief medical officer at Duke University Hospital, says it reflects that people can be too busy to sift through all the information at our fingertips and figure out whether or not it is legitimate.
“It’s easier, in our times when we’re flipping through our phones, just to read the headlines,” Pickett said. “And it takes more time and energy to scroll down and look at the graphs and read the full papers.”
Weber says it takes careful, critical thinking to absorb the nuances of those numbers.
“This is sort of complicated stuff, and you have to think about it carefully,” he said. “We as healthcare providers need to be able to put what we know into simple language that everyone can understand. It’s easy to get confused when you look at numbers without carefully thinking about how those numbers were derived.”
CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.