Fact check: Are unvaccinated people 4X more likely than the fully vaccinated to catch COVID?

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — We have plenty of numbers to reinforce what experts have been saying for months: That while the COVID-19 vaccines don’t completely eliminate the chances you’ll get sick, they drastically lower that risk.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen earlier this week brought up a new one.

THE CLAIM: Cohen said state data show “unvaccinated people are more than four times — that’s 400 percent — more likely to get COVID-19 than people who are fully vaccinated.”

THE FACTS: State Epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore says Cohen is talking about the attack rate — the rate at which cases show up in different groups of people as the sizes of those groups change and more people get vaccinated.

“What we’re trying to do is compare those rates of infection … in both unvaccinated people and in fully vaccinated people,” Moore said.

DHHS included a chart of those figures in its respiratory surveillance report Thursday. It does in fact show the attack rate for the unvaccinated most recently climbing to 461 cases per 100,000 people, compared to 131 among the fully vaccinated for a ratio of 3.5. It means unvaccinated people are in fact 3.5 times — or 350 percent — more likely to catch COVID-19 as vaccinated people are.

“We can give people a sense of whether those are showing to be effective in our data,” Moore said, “and we’re clearly seeing that they are.”

(Source: NCDHHS)

That ratio previously was 4 to 1, and was what Cohen was referring to when she made the 400 percent claim, Moore said.

It raises the question — who counts as fully vaccinated?

Moore said DHHS counts vaccinations the same way the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does — only those for whom 14 days have passed after completing their regimen of either one (Johnson & Johnson) or two (Pfizer, Moderna) doses.

“If you had one shot (and) never got your second, or had both shots or got the Johnson & Johnson, but you’re not 14 days out, we’re counting you as unvaccinated for these comparisons,” Moore said.

An independent calculation by CBS17.com confirmed that those numbers add up.

NCDHHS so far has released two counts of breakthrough cases, or the number of cases reported in fully vaccinated people.

Roughly 7,300 of them between Jan. 1 and July 22, and roughly 16,000 of them between Jan. 1 and Aug. 5. Subtracting them tells us there were about 8,700 cases between July 22 and Aug. 5.

The total number of new cases reported between those two dates was 36,700, according to the daily updates from DHHS. Taking out the 8,700 leaves 28,000 cases among those not fully vaccinated.

So we have our separate counts of cases among vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Now we need to know how big those groups were at the time.

NCDHHS says there were 4.9 million fully vaccinated people as of Aug. 5, leaving 5.5 million who were not.

Then, we divide the number of cases for each group by the total number of people in those groups, then multiply that by 10,000 to get the per capita case rate.

That rate for unvaccinated people is 66 cases per 10,000 people, compared to 18 cases per 10,000 people for fully vaccinated people — or, after some rounding, four times larger for the unvaccinated than the vaccinated.

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.

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