Faulty interpretation underpins claim that COVID shots don’t work
CLAIM: The majority of people dying from COVID-19 are vaccinated, suggesting the vaccines don’t work.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. A recent analysis found that more COVID-19 deaths now occur among the vaccinated, but it also stated that should not be seen as evidence that vaccines don’t work. Experts note that this shift was expected in part because more people than not are vaccinated, at least with their primary shots, and there are other factors, such as waning immunity among the vaccinated, also affecting the numbers. Additionally, unvaccinated individuals could have immunity from COVID-19 itself.
THE FACTS: Social media users are pointing to data about COVID-19 deaths to baselessly suggest that the vaccines do not work.
“Vaccines are so effective that the majority of people dying from covid are the vaccinated,” reads a tweet that was shared as screenshot on Instagram. “Wait... what?”
It’s true that more adults dying of COVID-19 are now vaccinated than unvaccinated, as a recent analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by the Kaiser Family Foundation found. The report noted that, as of August, about 6 in 10 adults dying of COVID-19 were vaccinated or boosted.
But that doesn’t mean vaccines don’t work, as the Kaiser report notes, and experts say those who are unvaccinated and don’t have protection from a COVID-19 infection are still at a greater risk of death.
“It would be a misrepresentation of the finding to say it is evidence against vaccination,” the authors of the report wrote. “This finding actually underscores the importance of staying up-to-date on boosters.”
There are a number of factors to consider, Cynthia Cox, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation who co-authored the report, told The Associated Press.
For starters, a majority of the adult population is now vaccinated. As of early December, about 78.6% of U.S. adults received a primary vaccine series, according to the CDC. For Pfizer or Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines, the primary series for most people is the first two doses. And if everyone in a population were hypothetically vaccinated, 100% of those who died of COVID-19 would be vaccinated.
The report also notes that those who are “vaccinated and boosted people are, on average, older and more likely to have underlying health conditions that put them at risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes.”
Dr. Christopher Murray, chair of Health Metrics Sciences at the University of Washington and Director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said waning immunity among vaccinated people is also driving this shift — a factor that the Kaiser report noted as well.
“The reason we’re seeing what we’re seeing is not that vaccines don’t work, it’s that immunity wanes over time,” Murray said, adding that those vaccinated a year ago likely have little protection.
Murray said COVID-19 itself also affords protection to the unvaccinated, which also needs to be considered when evaluating the numbers. He noted, however, that infection comes with the risk of severe outcomes, including death — so vaccination remains the more desirable path to immunity.
The key thing for individuals to weigh is how long it’s been since their last shot or infection, Murray added.
Cox similarly said that while the vaccines have been successful, the Kaiser report is “evidence that more people need to get boosted and stay on top of their booster doses.”
Amira Roess, a George Mason University professor of global health and epidemiology, said in an email that social media posts using the numbers to suggest the vaccines don’t work are “not taking into account the nuances of the context.”
A more accurate way to look at the issue in terms of vaccination benefit is to compare the rates of COVID-19 deaths in the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations, Roess said.
The CDC reports that the rate of COVID-19 deaths is significantly reduced among vaccinated people, compared with unvaccinated people, based on data from 21 U.S. jurisdictions on people ages 12 and older.
The agency estimates, for example, that individuals who received an updated COVID-19 bivalent booster — which targets both an early version of the coronavirus as well as versions of the omicron variant — had a 14.9 times lower risk of dying from COVID-19 in September than their unvaccinated counterparts.
Those CDC calculations, however, are also not perfect because they do not account for things such as prior infections or how much time has lapsed since vaccination. The updated booster shots made their debut in September.
Uptake of the updated shots has been slow; about a third of people 65 and older have received one, according to the CDC.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.