The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, it’s still a pandemic of the unvaccinated — arguably even more so now

Activists and faith groups protest coronavirus vaccination mandates and restrictions in late January. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

For more than a hot second after the emergence of the omicron coronavirus variant, there was a major backlash from the right against President Biden having labeled our current state of affairs a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

The reason: The omicron variant rendered the coronavirus vaccines significantly less effective at stopping the spread. “What’s the point of vaccines or vaccine mandates?” a bunch of powerful people asked. They did so while deliberately ignoring both the vaccines’ continued assistance in slowing the spread (albeit at a reduced rate) and their continually strong performance in keeping people alive and out of the hospital.

It was shortsighted at the time, and it’s looking increasingly so now.

New data shows that on those same measures — literally the most vital ones — the gap between vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans remains stark. In fact, when you compare unvaccinated people to those most protected by the vaccines, the gap has grown.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data this week from Los Angeles County. The data covered the period between Nov. 7 and Jan. 8, which means the vast majority of cases involved came after the rise of omicron.

What you’ll see right away is that there are indeed lots of infections among both unvaccinated people and vaccinated people — more specifically, vaccinated people who haven’t gotten boosters. The latter accounted for a majority of cases, about 53 percent. A big reason for that is that they significantly outnumber the unvaccinated in the county, currently about 2 to 1. Unvaccinated people still got infected more frequently, but the gap closed.

Where the gap has not really closed — and indeed has arguably increased — is when you focus on the most serious cases, and when you compare the unvaccinated to those who have taken the most advantage of the vaccines.

Back in September, we got a big new data download from the CDC. It showed that during the spring and summer, unvaccinated people had been 10 times more likely to be hospitalized with the coronavirus and 11 times more likely to die. Those were big numbers that placed the importance of vaccination in stark relief.

After the introduction of boosters, we now have yet another category to compare to the unvaccinated: the boosted. And the gap is greater still.

The Los Angeles County data showed that at the tail end of the period in which the delta variant was predominant, unvaccinated people were 83 times more likely to be hospitalized than boosted people. Once omicron became predominant in early December and cases rose, the gap shrank. But it was still a 23-fold difference — greater than the gap in the larger study from earlier in the year.

The CDC also recently provided data from a larger study — similar to the spring-and-summer data from last year. In data for 25 jurisdictions covering the last three months of 2021, it found the death rate was 53 times higher among the unvaccinated than the boosted.

It’s gotten to the point where people who are vaccinated and boosted dying in a given week is apparently about 1 in a million — even less than dying in a car crash, as the New York Times’s David Leonhardt wrote.

As Leonhardt also noted, this is also hardly the first data to suggest a growing gap in outcomes between the unvaccinated and everyone else. Data from Seattle and New York City point in the same direction.

Interestingly, that larger 25-jurisdiction study showed that the smaller gap between the unvaccinated and the vaccinated-but-unboosted remained similar to the spring and summer: You were about 13 times more likely to die if you were unvaccinated, compared with 11 times before.

But layering on boosters has expanded the gaps even further between the unprotected and the most-protected. That shows up in both the larger study, which mostly covered the delta period, and the more specific omicron data from Los Angeles County.

Last month, we noted that the pushback against the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” talking point ignored the metrics by which we usually define pandemics:

Those more-serious cases cause significant damage because of the strain not just on the people involved and their loved ones, but on the larger health-care system — which is a hugely important piece of this. A huge and defining piece of any pandemic, after all, is the lasting results it has by virtue of its most serious cases. We often talk about these things in terms of death tolls for a reason, and the unvaccinated are overwhelmingly driving the death toll.

The most recent data suggests those who continue to eschew the vaccines, despite everything, are likely to drive the death toll even more.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will probably challenge a key line of treatment for people with compromised immune systems — the drugs known as monoclonal antibodies.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

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