How to compare COVID deaths for the vaccinated and unvaccinated

In order to avoid the pitfalls of absolute numbers, it is useful to instead look at incidence rates—usually expressed as the number of deaths per 100,000 people. Standardizing the denominator across all groups offers a very different picture.

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Graphic shows average weekly COVID deaths per 100,000 people by vaccination status in March 2022.
Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Another way to think about the protection vaccination provides is to compare the ratios of death rates among the vaccinated and unvaccinated. For the month of March, “vaccinated people 12 years and older had 17 times the rate of COVID-associated deaths, compared to people vaccinated with a primary series and a booster dose,” says Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service commander Heather Scobie, deputy team lead for surveillance and analytics at the CDC’s Epidemiology Task Force. “Unvaccinated people had eight times the rate of death as compared to people who only had a primary series,” suggesting that boosters increase the level of protection.

It is also important to consider the ages of those who are dying. People 65 and older make up the group that is both the most likely to be vaccinated (and boosted) and the most likely to die of COVID. (Being older is one of the biggest risk factors for severe COVID because the immune system weakens with age.) So when you separate the age groups, it becomes even clearer that vaccination reduces the risk of death. And because immune protection from vaccination wanes with time, and because some older people do not mount a good immune response to the primary series, being boosted reduces that risk even further.

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