A tripledemic hurricane is making landfall. We need masks, not just tent hospitals

A viral hurricane is making landfall on health care systems battered by three pandemic years. With the official start of winter still weeks away, pediatric hospitals are facing crushing caseloads of children sick with RSV and other viral illnesses. Schools that promised a “return to normal” now report widespread absences and even closures from RSV and flu in many parts of the country, contributing to parents missing work in record numbers. With this year’s flu season beginning some six weeks early, the CDC has already declared a flu epidemic as hospitalizations for influenza soared to the highest point in more than a decade.

A storm of these proportions should demand not only crisis clinical measures, but also community prevention efforts. Yet instead of deploying public health strategies to weather the storm, the U.S. is abandoning them.

Even before the arrival of the so-called tripledemic, U.S. health systems were on the brink. But as the fall surge of illness threatens to capsize teetering hospitals, the will to deploy public health measures has also collapsed. Pediatricians are declaring “This is our March 2020” and issuing pleas for help while public health efforts to flatten the curve and reduce transmission rates of Covid-19 — or any infectious disease — have effectively evaporated. Unmanageable patient volumes are seen as inevitable, or billed as the predictable outcome of an “immunity debt,” despite considerable uncertainty surrounding the scientific underpinnings and practical utility of this concept.

The Covid-19 pandemic should have left us better prepared for this moment. It helped the public to understand that respiratory viruses primarily spread through shared indoor air. Public health practices to stop the spread of Covid-19 — such as masking, moving activities outdoors, and limiting large gatherings during surges — were incorporated into the daily routines of many Americans. RSV and flu are also much less transmissible than Covid-19, making them easier to control with common-sense public health practices.

Instead of dialing up those first-line practices as pediatric ICUs overflow and classrooms close, though, the U.S. is relying on its precious and fragile last lines of defense to combat the tripledemic: health care professionals and medical facilities.

Warnings and advisories recently issued by U.S. public health leadersclinical leaderspoliticians, and the media have consistently neglected to mention masking as a powerful short-term public health strategy that can blunt the surge of viral illness. Instead, recent guidance has exclusively promoted handwashing and cough etiquette. These recommendations run counter to recent calls to build on improved understanding of the transmission of respiratory viruses.

In the U.S.’s efforts to “move on” from thinking about Covid, it has created a “new normal” that is deeply abnormal — one in which we normalize resorting to crisis measures, such as treating patients in tents, instead of using common-sense public health strategies. Treating Covid like the flu — or the flu like Covid — has effectively meant that we treat neither illness as if it were a serious threat to health systems and to public health. Mobilizing Department of Defense troops and Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel to cover health system shortfalls is apparently more palatable than asking people to wear masks.

The tripledemic has already claimed its first child deaths in the U.S., adding to a large ongoing death toll from Covid. Allowing health systems to reach the brink of collapse will lead to many more preventable deaths among pediatric and other vulnerable patients who can’t access the care they need.

By any accounting, these losses are shocking and tragic. But they should strike us as particularly abhorrent and shameful because the tripledemic is a crisis that leaders, health agencies, and institutions have, in a sense, chosen. Over the past year, the Biden administration and its allies have repeatedly encouraged the public to stand down on public health measures, with the President even stating in September that “the pandemic is over.” By moving real risks out of view and failing to push for more robust measures to mitigate Covid, these messages have put the country on a path to its present circumstances, in which pediatric RSV patients are transferred to hospitals hundreds of miles away because there is no capacity to treat them in their own communities.

Living with viruses should mean embracing simple public health measures rather than learning to live with staggering levels of illness and death. Leaders in public health and medicine should issue timely and appropriate guidance that reflects the latest science instead of second-guessing the prevailing winds in public opinion. Instead of self-censoring their recommendations out of fear of political consequences, they should continue to promote the full range of public health strategies, including masking in crowded indoor public places during surges.

The tripledemic should bring renewed urgency to policies that will reduce the toll of seasonal illness on health, education, and the economy. Improvements in indoor air quality in public spaces, including schools, child care centers, and workplaces, can limit the spread of diseases and have many demonstrated health and economic benefits, yet the U.S. continues to lack standards to guide infrastructure or workplace safety standards. Paid leave enabling workers to stay home when they are ill can reduce the transmission of disease as well as loss of income, yet the U.S. is one of the only high-income countries without universal paid sick leave or family medical leave.

Greater effort must also be made to increase vaccination coverage for flu and Covid and bring an RSV vaccine online as quickly as possible. Only about half of high-risk adults under 65 received a flu shot last year, a gap that can be closed with more energetic vaccination campaigns. Reducing annual flu deaths using a broader range of strategies enabled by the pandemic — rather than pegging Covid deaths to them — should be the goal.

Amid the many sobering stories of the tripledemic, there is some good news. As the experience of Covid-19 has shown, it is possible to limit the toll of respiratory viruses like flu and RSV. However, this work requires resources, appropriate policies, and political will. Americans don’t need to accept winter disease surges and overrun health systems as an inevitable new normal. Instead, the country should see the tripledemic as a call to reinvigorate public health strategies in response to these threats to the health of our communities.

China’s COVID storm

https://www.axios.com/2022/11/26/china-covid-outbreak-lockdown-economy

A new COVID calamity is hammering China, with a surge in infections prompting a return of lockdowns, including in some manufacturing areas that supply the West.

  • China reported a record number of infections this week, amid lockdowns and mass testing that are fueling unrest and darkening the country’s economic outlook. Schools in Beijing returned to online teaching.

Why it matters: In addition to the human misery for the world’s most populous country, the effects will be felt around the globe, Axios China author Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports from Taipei.

  • Supply chains are likely to be disrupted, causing prices to rise in an already rocky global economy.

Rare protests broke out today in China’s far western Xinjiang region. Crowds shouted at hazmat-suited guards after a deadly fire triggered anger by prolonged COVID lockdowns, Reuters reports.

  • “End the lockdown!” shouted protesters in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, where an apartment fire killed 10.

What’s happening: The moment of truth for China’s zero-COVID policy has finally come.

  • Either party leaders will need to plunge much of the country into draconian lockdowns, as we saw at the beginning of the pandemic — or they’ll decide it’s time to learn to live with COVID.

Reality check: China’s doctors have warned Xi Jinping that the healthcare system isn’t prepared for the huge outbreak likely to follow the easing of strict anti-COVID measures, the Financial Times reports.

  • Chinese-made vaccines, which don’t use the mRNA technology employed by many produced by the West, aren’t as effective compared to those made in the U.S. And China has worrisomely low vaccination rates among older people.
  • But the number of cases in China is actually still very low for anywhere but China.

The big picture: “Zero COVID” restrictions have damaged the economy and undermined people’s trust in government.

  • That’s a stark about-face from the height of the pandemic. Then, many Chinese people felt the tight central control had protected them better than any other governance model in the world.
  • But it’s that very model that has plunged China into its current predicament. Xi tied his reputation, and the party’s legitimacy, to the success of “zero COVID.”

Between the lines: Chinese leaders made a huge, politically motivated mistake. They resisted the import of Western-made mRNA vaccines (including Pfizer and Moderna) for its citizens. These vaccines were only recently made available to foreigners.

  • That’s likely because of Beijing’s big vaccine diplomacy push: Chinese officials touted their own vaccines as the best and safest.
  • It was politically unpalatable to admit “defeat,” and allow Chinese people to get more effective — but Western-made — jabs.

China faces dilemma in unwinding zero-COVID

https://www.axios.com/2022/11/28/china-dilemma-unwinding-covid-zero

China is facing an increasingly precarious situation as new COVID cases soar and the population seems to be hitting a breaking point with the government’s stringent zero-tolerance policies.

Why it matters: The world’s most populous nation has massive vulnerabilities heading into this winter, starting with the fact the vast majority of its population has yet to be exposed to the virus and has little ‘natural immunity.’

  • China’s vaccines didn’t work well compared to those distributed in the West, and the government refused to approve foreign vaccines and doesn’t have a version to combat Omicron.
  • Vaccine uptake was particularly low among the elderly.
  • And now, public outrage over new COVID lockdown restrictions has fueled rare protests, Axios’ Herb Scribner writes, with residents demanding the government to lift restrictions quickly and some calling for President Xi Jinping’s resignation.

State of play: Overall, China’s number of reported COVID cases and COVID deaths are far lower than other nations, but there have been recent reported spikes in overall numbers of cases and some new deaths.

  • It came after the Chinese government announced some easing of its zero-COVID policy, such as reducing mass testing and quarantine requirements, earlier this month.

Reality check: China’s doctors have warned that the health care system isn’t prepared for the huge outbreak likely to follow any easing of public health measures, Axios’ Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian writes.

  • That includes worries the nation doesn’t have enough ICU bed capacity to handle such outbreaks, according to the Financial Times.

Between the lines: Another concern is the potential evolution of a new, more dangerous variant if there’s a huge surge of infections, Christian Drosten, Germany’s most prominent virologist, told Bloomberg.

  • “Xi Jinping knows very well that he can’t simply let the virus loose,” Drosten said. “The Chinese population first needs to be as well vaccinated as we are.”

Be smart: China’s officials are scrambling to address the vaccine problem.

  • For instance, they are launching more aggressive vaccine drives and limiting movement among at-risk groups, including the elderly, the Washington Post reports.
  • They’ve also approved the use of the first inhaled COVID-19 vaccine in dozens of cities earlier this month in a bid to boost uptake, WSJ reported. Experts have said the vaccine, which was found to stimulate a mucosal response, may create more durable protection against the virus, although more data is needed.
  • But they have yet to open up the availability of mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, opting to focus on their own, per the Post.

The bottom line: China’s zero-COVID policy has kept cases in China relatively low compared to the rest of the world.

  • But even as the societal and economic consequences of shutdowns become apparent, it faces a very difficult path ahead in unwinding strict public health policies.

Can updated boosters prevent another Covid-19 surge? Why some experts are skeptical.

Most experts agree that updated bivalent Covid-19 boosters provide additional protection against serious illness and death among vulnerable populations—but evidence suggests that increased booster uptake may not prevent a “wave of Covid” infections this winter, Apoorva Mandavilli writes for the New York Times.

Can bivalent boosters prevent another surge of infections?

While the Biden administration’s plan to prevent another surge of Covid-19 infections relies on increasing Americans’ uptake of the updated booster doses of the PfizerBioNTech and Moderna vaccines, some experts doubt the strategy.

According to John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, boosters provide additional protection to vulnerable populations—including older adults, immunocompromised individuals, and pregnant people—who should get boosted to prevent severe illness and death.

However, the benefit is not as clear for healthy, younger Americans who “are rarely at risk of severe illness or death from Covid, and at this point most have built immunity through multiple vaccine doses, infections or both,” Mandavilli writes.

“If you’re at medical risk, you should get boosted, or if you’re at psychological risk and worrying yourself to death, go and get boosted,” Moore said. “But don’t believe that will give you some kind of amazing protection against infection, and then go out and party like there’s no tomorrow.”

Separately, Peter Marks, FDA‘s top vaccine regulator, noted the limited data available data for the updated boosters.

“It’s true, we’re not sure how well these vaccines will do yet against preventing symptomatic disease,” he said, especially as the newer variants spread.

However, Marks added, “even modest improvements in vaccine response to the bivalent boosters could have important positive consequences on public health. Given the downside is pretty low here, I think the answer is we really advocate people going out and consider getting that booster.”

How much additional protection do updated shots provide?

While Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna recently reported that their bivalent boosters produced antibody levels that were four to six times higher than the original vaccine, their results were based on BA.4 and BA.5 antibodies, instead of the more prevalent BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 variants.

According to Mandavilli, “[a] spate of preliminary research suggests that the updated boosters, introduced in September, are only marginally better than the original vaccines at protecting against the newer variants — if at all.”

These small studies have not been reviewed for publication in a journal—but they all came to similar conclusions.

“It’s not likely that any of the vaccines or boosters, no matter how many you get, will provide substantial and sustained protection against acquisition of infection,” said Dan Barouch, head of Beth Israel Deaconess Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, who helped develop Johnson & Johnson‘s vaccine.

Notably, Barouch’s team recently discovered that BQ.1.1 is around seven times more resistant to the body’s immune defenses than BA.5, and 175 times more resistant than the original strain of the coronavirus. “It has the most striking immune escape, and it’s also growing the most rapidly,” he said. BQ.1 will likely follow a similar pattern.

“By now, most Americans have some degree of immunity to the coronavirus, and it does not surprise scientists that the variant that best evades the body’s immune response is likely to outrun its rivals,” Mandavilli writes.

The new vaccine increases antibodies, but the fact it is bivalent may not be significant. In August, a study by Australian immunologists suggested that any kind of booster would offer extra protection. In addition, the study noted that a variant-specific booster would likely not be more effective than the original vaccine.

“The bulk of the benefit is from the provision of a booster dose, irrespective of whether it is a monovalent or bivalent vaccine,” according to the World Health Organization.

Florian Krammer, an immunologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, noted that despite recent research, which evaluated immune response soon after vaccination, immune response may improve over time.

“We will see with larger studies and studies at a later time point if there is a good or a significant benefit, but I think it’s certainly not worse,” he added. “I don’t see much risk when you get the vaccine, so you might as well get the benefit.”

“What we need to do right now to get us through the next few months when I think we are in yet another wave of incipient wave of Covid,” Marks added. “And then we need to look forward, and lean into how we’re going to do things differently moving forward.”

Will we see an increase in vaccine uptake?

Currently, FDA allows the booster dose at least two months after a Covid-19 infection or previous does. However, some studies suggest boosting too early could have negative consequences. “Lengthening the interval between boosts to five or six months may be more effective, giving the immune system more time to refine its response,” Mandavilli writes.

Still, “adding yet another shot to the regimen seems unlikely to motivate Americans to opt for the immunization,” no matter the schedule, she adds.

“Each new booster we roll out is going to have a lower and lower uptake, and we’re already pretty close to the floor,” said Gretchen Chapman, an expert in health behavior at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ultimately, “[w]e should not spend a lot of political capital trying to get people to get this bivalent booster, because the benefits are limited,” Chapman added. “It’s more important to get folks who never got the initial vaccine series vaccinated than to get people like me to get their fifth shot.” 

Who is still dying of COVID?

https://mailchi.mp/46ca38d3d25e/the-weekly-gist-november-4-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

While we have mercifully moved beyond the crisis phase of the pandemic, COVID remains a leading cause of US deaths, taking the lives of hundreds of Americans each day.

In the graphic above, we analyzed COVID mortality data, finding the defining characteristic of Americans still dying of COVID is age. As death rates have dropped, the percentage of COVID deaths accounted for by individuals 65 years or older has risen to an all-time high of 88 percent. 

Notably, a majority of people dying of COVID today are vaccinated, due to the high rate of vaccination in the 65+ population. While the near-universal vaccination of seniors, including the fact that one in five have received the most recent bivalent booster, is not sufficient to save all of their lives, unvaccinated seniors are still dying at higher rates than vaccinated ones.

In August 2022, vaccinated individuals over age 80, who represent about four percent of the total US population, made up 31 percent of COVID deaths, while unvaccinated individuals in the same age group, who represent less than one percent of the total population, made up 19 percent of COVID deaths. 

We entered 2020 with about 55M Americans ages 65 and older, and have since lost 790K, or nearly 1.5 percent of the senior population, to COVID. Meanwhile, reports of the new, immune-evasive BQ variant sweeping New York and California remind us that COVID’s not done with us yet, even if we think we’re done with it. 

The end of the pandemic “is in sight”

Some good news: The world had its lowest COVID death toll last week since March 2020, the World Health Organization said.

  • The end of the pandemic “is in sight,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
  • But “we are not there yet.”

Zoom out: Last summer’s Delta variant demolished the first sense of relief after vaccines.

  • “If we don’t take this opportunity now, Tedros said while calling for more vaccinations and testing, “we run the risk of more variants, more deaths, more disruption and more uncertainty.”

The bottom line: The next surge could come by surprise.

  • Johns Hopkins University is scaling back its COVID metrics due to a slowdown in local data reporting, the university confirmed to Axios.

FDA clears updated COVID-19 vaccines ahead of fall booster campaign

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday authorized updated COVID-19 booster shots specifically targeting a subvariant of omicron. 

The move comes ahead of a fall campaign to give Americans booster shots, which is expected to launch in the coming days. 

The move marks the first time the vaccines have been updated since the first shots were cleared at the end of 2020, and the updated shots are designed to catch up to evolutions in the virus.

The shots from Pfizer and Moderna target the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, as well as the original virus. 

The shots can begin going into arms once the final step in the process, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee, clears them, which is expected to occur on Thursday.  

A major question, though, is how many people will actually want the new shots, given that uptake for the existing booster shots has lagged.  

Only about half of people who got the first two shots received the initial booster dose.  

“The COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, continue to save countless lives and prevent the most serious outcomes (hospitalization and death) of COVID-19,” said FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. “As we head into fall and begin to spend more time indoors, we strongly encourage anyone who is eligible to consider receiving a booster dose with a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine to provide better protection against currently circulating variants.”

Seeking to keep up with the ever-evolving virus, the FDA did not wait for the time-consuming process of going through full clinical trials on this tweaked vaccine. But it noted that it is highly confident that the vaccines are safe and effective. The agency pointed to the millions of doses of the original vaccines that have been given, as well as data from another version of the updated vaccine, along with preliminary data on this one.  

Peter Marks, a top FDA vaccine official, compared the process to the annual updates to the flu vaccine that seek to adapt to the changes in that virus.  

“The public can be assured that a great deal of care has been taken by the FDA to ensure that these bivalent COVID-19 vaccines meet our rigorous safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality standards for emergency use authorization,” Marks said.  

The updated Moderna vaccine is cleared for people 18 and older, and the Pfizer vaccine for people 12 and older.  

For both, people are eligible for the booster shot of the updated vaccine if it has been at least two months since their last shot.  

How Long Has Polio Been Circulating in the U.S.?

 The virus has likely been circulating in U.S. cities intermittently for years, experts say.

The fact that poliovirus was detected in New York City wastewater samples as far back as April of this year shouldn’t be surprising, as the virus likely has been circulating for longer and more widely than previously believed, several experts told MedPage Today.

“I think you’re gonna see over the next weeks more and more reports of poliovirus in wastewater elsewhere,” said Vincent Racaniello, PhD, a virologist at Columbia University in New York City.

Poliovirus probably still circulated in the U.S. after 2000, when officials stopped giving the oral polio vaccine, he said. That version protects against paralysis and provides short-term protection against intestinal infection from poliovirus.

The transition to injectable polio vaccine, which is equally as effective against paralysis but not against intestinal infection, meant that the U.S. population was more susceptible to transmitting vaccine-associated poliovirus, he explained.

This circulation is likely occasional and sporadic, he said, but the threat to vulnerable populations is still high.

“Here’s the thing: polio is here in the U.S. It’s not gone,” Racaniello said. “It’s in the wastewater. It could contaminate you, so if you’re not vaccinated, that could be a problem.”

Calls for Nationwide Surveillance

Racaniello said there’s value in learning more about the circulation of the virus, especially for communities with low vaccination rates.

The first step to understanding how long and how broadly poliovirus is circulating, he said, is to start testing wastewater everywhere. The CDC used stored wastewater from April to confirm that the virus had been circulating then, but it is just as possible to conduct nationwide surveillance for poliovirus now, he noted.

In fact, Racaniello said, he has long believed that this kind of surveillance should be done routinely to provide an early detection system for poliovirus.

“Ten years ago, I said to the CDC, you should really be looking in the sewage for poliovirus because of this issue where it could come in from overseas and be in our sewage,” he said. “If someone is unvaccinated, that would be a threat to them, but [the CDC] never did it.”

Davida Smyth, PhD, of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, pointed out that the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) was established to detect COVID-19 in 2020, so the infrastructure to conduct a wide search for the spread of polio is available.

The primary issue, she said, is that the collaboration that academic researchers have enjoyed with the CDC in surveillance of COVID-19 is so far absent with poliovirus.

“I imagine the CDC is testing those samples for polio, even as we speak, given the nature of what has happened,” Smyth said.

Better coordination with academia and better surveillance, she said, is crucial for finding any potential pockets of poliovirus circulating in other communities around the U.S.

In fact, she said, she is “absolutely convinced” that more polio will be found in the coming weeks.

MedPage Today contacted the CDC to ask whether there are plans to use the NWSS to look for polio around the U.S., but as of press time had not received a response.

Smyth noted that most areas in the country have high rates of polio vaccination, but she is concerned about pockets of rural America where vaccination has dipped in recent years. Most states boast polio vaccination rates over 90%, but Smyth said in some regions, the percentages may be as low as the mid-30s.

“[In] the vast majority of the United States, the vaccination rates are quite high, but the COVID pandemic has led to a decrease in vaccination rates,” Smyth told MedPage Today. “The rates are going down. They’re dipping below 90%, which is shocking, frankly.”

Smyth said the decline is largely due to a lack of opportunity or access to healthcare in some areas, but vaccine hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine might be affecting polio vaccinations as well.

“There’s a variety of reasons why people don’t get vaccinated,” she said. “The problem is children are very vulnerable. So if you have a population where the vaccination rates drop, those are exactly the kinds of areas where we need to do this surveillance.”

Racaniello echoed the importance of polio vaccination in adults as well. If patients don’t have a record of their shot, “just vaccinate them,” he said, “because there’s no downside to getting vaccinated again.”

Re-evaluating the Polio Endgame

The recent case of paralytic polio infection and concerns over the wider circulation of poliovirus have also altered some of the thinking around the goal of polio eradication.

In fact, William Schaffner, MD, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, highlighted the unique difficulty of preventing the spread of poliovirus.

“As you can imagine, we’ve gotten into polio endgame,” he told MedPage Today. “I think the notion has now been modified. Eradication isn’t going to be as neat and clean and quick as we once thought. Once we get rid of all paralytic disease, we will have to keep vaccinating for a long time, because there will still be circulating vaccine-associated viruses — some of which will mutate back.”

Schaffner compared the final push to eradicate polio with the successful eradication of smallpox. When the last case of smallpox ended, he explained, public health officials were able to end smallpox vaccination campaigns. For polio, however, he said, it will likely not be that simple, and it will be necessary “to keep vaccinating for quite a long time.”

He said that as public health officials in the U.S. and globally continue to grapple with the nuances of eradicating poliovirus, healthcare providers and their patients will have to come to terms with the simple fact that polio is a real health concern.

“[It’s] the reverse of the old saying, ‘it’s gone, but not forgotten,'” Schaffner said. “Polio is forgotten, but it’s not gone.”

US may see ‘pretty sizable’ fall COVID-19 surge, Dr. Ashish Jha warns

The U.S. may see a “pretty sizable wave” of COVID-19 infections this fall and winter as the virus continues to evolve and immunity wanes, White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, MD, said May 8 on ABC News‘ “This Week.”

Federal health officials are looking at a range of disease forecasting models, which suggest the U.S. could experience a large surge in late 2022, similar to the last two winters, according to Dr. Jha. On May 6, the White House projected 100 million COVID-19 infections could occur this fall and winter, according to The Washington Post.

If we don’t get ahead of this thing … we may see a pretty sizable wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths this fall and winter,” he said. “Whether that happens or not is largely up to us as a country. If we can prepare and if we can act, we can prevent that.”

More funding to purchase COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics will be crucial to stave off a potential surge, according to Dr. Jha. The Biden administration is asking Congress for an additional $22.5 billion in emergency aid to support these efforts. 

“If Congress does not do that now, we will go into this fall and winter with none of the capabilities that we have developed over the last two years,” Dr. Jha said.

Covid deaths no longer overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated as toll on elderly grows

Unvaccinated people accounted for the overwhelming majority of deaths in the United States throughout much of the coronavirus pandemic. But that has changed in recent months, according to a Washington Post analysis of state and federal data.

The pandemic’s toll is no longer falling almost exclusively on those who chose not to or could not get shots, with vaccine protection waning over time and the elderly and immunocompromised — who are at greatest risk of succumbing to covid-19, even if vaccinated — having a harder time dodging increasingly contagious strains.

The vaccinated made up 42 percent of fatalities in January and February during the highly contagious omicron variant’s surge, compared with 23 percent of the dead in September, the peak of the delta wave, according to nationwide data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed by The Post. The data is based on the date of infection and limited to a sampling of cases in which vaccination status was known.

As a group, the unvaccinated remain far more vulnerable to the worst consequences of infection — and are far more likely to die — than people who are vaccinated, and they are especially more at risk than people who have received a booster shot.

“It’s still absolutely more dangerous to be unvaccinated than vaccinated,” said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies covid-19 mortality.“A pandemic of — and by — the unvaccinated is not correct. People still need to take care in terms of prevention and action if they became symptomatic.”

A key explanation for the rise in deaths among the vaccinated is that covid-19 fatalities are again concentrated among the elderly.

Nearly two-thirds of the people who died during the omicron surge were 75 and older, according to a Post analysis, compared with a third during the delta wave. Seniors are overwhelmingly immunized, but vaccines are less effective and their potency wanes over time in older age groups.

Experts say they are not surprised that vaccinated seniors are making up a greater share of the dead, even as vaccine holdouts died far more often than the vaccinated during the omicron surge, according to the CDC. As more people are infected with the virus, the more people it will kill, including a greater number who are vaccinated but among the most vulnerable.

The bulk of vaccinated deaths are among people who did not get a booster shot, according to state data provided to The Post. In two of the states, California and Mississippi, three-quarters of the vaccinated senior citizens who died in January and February did not have booster doses. Regulators in recent weeks have authorized second booster doses for people over the age of 50, but administration of first booster doses has stagnated.

Even though the death rates for the vaccinated elderly and immunocompromised are low, their losses numbered in the thousands when cases exploded, leaving behind blindsided families. But experts say the rising number of vaccinated people dying should not cause panic in those who got shots, the vast majority of whom will survive infections. Instead, they say, these deaths serve as a reminder that vaccines are not foolproof and that those in high-risk groups should consider getting boosted and taking extra precautions during surges.

“Vaccines are one of the most important and longest-lasting tools we have to protect ourselves,” said California State Epidemiologist Erica Pan, citing state estimates showing vaccines have shown to be 85 percent effective in preventing death.

“Unfortunately, that does leave another 15,” she said.

‘He did not expect to be sick’

Arianne Bennett recalled her husband, Scott Bennett, saying, “But I’m vaxxed. But I’m vaxxed,” from the D.C. hospital bed where he struggled to fight off covid-19 this winter.

Friends had a hard time believing Bennett, co-founder of the D.C.-based chain Amsterdam Falafelshop, was 70. The adventurous longtime entrepreneur hoped to buy a bar and planned to resume scuba-diving trips and 40-mile bike rides to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

Bennett went to get his booster in early December after returning to D.C. from a lodge he owned in the Poconos, where he and his wife hunkered down for fall. Just a few days after his shot, Bennett began experiencing covid-19 symptoms, meaning he was probably exposed before the extra dose of immunity could kick in. His wife suspects he was infected at a dinner where he and his server were unmasked at times.

A fever-stricken Bennett limped into the hospital alongside his wife, who was also infected, a week before Christmas. He died Jan. 13, among the 125,000 Americans who succumbed to covid-19 in January and February.

“He was absolutely shocked. He did not expect to be sick. He really thought he was safe,’” Arianne Bennett recalled. “And I’m like, ‘But baby, you’ve got to wear the mask all the time. All the time. Up over your nose.’”

Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, said the deaths of vaccinated people are among the consequences of a pandemic response that emphasizes individuals protecting themselves.

“When we are not taking this collective effort to curb community spread of the virus, the virus has proven time and time again it’s really good at finding that subset of vulnerable people,” Salemi said.

While experts say even the medically vulnerable should feel assured that a vaccine will probably save their lives, they should remain vigilant for signs of infection. As more therapeutics become available, early detection and treatment is key.

When Wayne Perkey, 84, first started sneezing and feeling other cold symptoms in early February, he resisted his physician daughter’s plea to get tested for the coronavirus.

The legendary former morning radio host in Louisville had been boosted in October. He diligently wore a mask and kept his social engagements to a minimum. It must have been the common cold or allergies, he believed. Even the physician who ordered a chest X-ray and had no coronavirus tests on hand thought so.

Perkey relented, and the test came back positive. He didn’t think he needed to go to the hospital, even as his oxygen levels declined.

“In his last voice conversation with me, he said, ‘I thought I was doing everything right,’” recalled Lady Booth Olson, another daughter, who lives in Virginia. “I believe society is getting complacent, and clearly somebody he was around was carrying the virus. … We’ll never know.”

From his hospital bed, Perkey resumed a familiar role as a high-profile proponent for vaccines and coronavirus precautions. He was familiar to many Kentuckians who grew up hearing his voice on the radio and watched him host the televised annual Crusade for Children fundraiser. He spent much of the pandemic as a caregiver to his ex-wife who struggled with chronic fatigue and other long-haul covid symptoms.

“It’s the 7th day of my Covid battle, the worst day so far, and my anger boils when I hear deniers talk about banning masks or social distancing,” Perkey wrote on Facebook on Feb. 16, almost exactly one year after he posted about getting his first shot. “I remember times we cared about our neighbors.”

In messages to a family group chat, he struck an optimistic note. “Thanks for all the love and positive energy,” he texted on Feb. 23. “Wear your mask.”

As is often the case for covid-19 patients, his condition rapidly turned for the worse. His daughter Rebecca Booth, the physician, suspects a previous bout with leukemia made it harder for his immune system to fight off the virus. He died March 6.

“Really and truly his final days were about, ‘This virus is bad news.’ He basically was saying: ‘Get vaccinated. Be careful. But there is no guarantee,’” Rebecca Booth said. “And, ‘If you think this isn’t a really bad virus, look at me.’ And it is.”

Hospitals, particularly in highly vaccinated areas, have also seen a shift from covid wards filled predominantly with the unvaccinated. Many who end up in the hospital have other conditions that weakens the shield afforded by the vaccine.

Vaccinated people made up slightly less than half the patients in the intensive care units of Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California hospital system in December and January, according to a spokesman.

Gregory Marelich, chair of critical care for the 21 hospitals in that system, said most of the vaccinated and boosted people he saw in ICUs were immunosuppressed, usually after organ transplants or because of medications for diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.

“I’ve cared for patients who are vaccinated and immunosuppressed and are in disbelief when they come down with covid,” Marelich said.

‘There’s life potential in those people’

Jessica Estep, 41, rang a bell celebrating her last treatment for follicular lymphoma in September. The single mother of two teenagers had settled into a new home in Michigan, near the Indiana border. After her first marriage ended, she found love again and got married in a zoo in November.

As an asthmatic cancer survivor, Estep knew she faced a heightened risk from covid-19, relatives said. She saw only a tight circle of friends and worked in her own office in her electronics repair job. She lived in an area where around 1 in 4 residents are fully vaccinated. She planned to get a booster shot in the winter.

“She was the most nonjudgmental person I know,” said her mother, Vickie Estep. “It was okay with her if people didn’t mask up or get vaccinated. It was okay with her that they exercised their right of choice, but she just wanted them to do that away from her so that she could be safe.”

With Michigan battling back-to-back surges of the delta and omicron variants, Jessica Estep wasn’t able to dodge the virus any longer — she fell ill in mid-December. After surviving a cancer doctors described as incurable, Estep died Jan. 27. Physicians said the coronavirus essentially turned her lungs into concrete, her mother said.

Estep’s 14-year-old daughter now lives with her grandparents. Her widower returned to Indianapolis just months after he moved to Michigan to be with his new wife.

Her family shared her story with a local television station in hopes of inspiring others to get vaccinated, to protect people such as Estep who could not rely on their own vaccination as a foolproof shield. In response to the station’s Facebook post about the story, several commenters shrugged off their pleas and insinuated it was the vaccines rather than covid causing deaths.

Immunocompromised people and those with other underlying conditions are worth protecting, Vickie Estep said. “There’s life potential in those people.”

A delayed shot

As Arianne Bennett navigates life without her husband, she hopes the lesson people heed from his death is to take advantage of all tools available to mitigate a virus that still finds and kills the vulnerable, including by getting boosters.

Bennett wore a music festival shirt her husband gave her as she walked into a grocery store to get her third shot in March. Her husband urged her to get one when they returned to D.C., but she became sick at the same time he did. She scheduled the appointment for the earliest she could get the shot: 90 days after receiving monoclonal antibodies to treat the disease.

My booster! Yay!” Bennett exclaimed in her chair as the pharmacist presented an updated vaccine card.

“It’s been challenging, but we got through it,” the pharmacist said, unaware of Scott Bennett’s death.

Tears welled in Bennett’s eyes as the needle went in her left arm, just over a year after she and her husband received their first shots.

“Last time we got it, we took selfies: ‘Look, we had vaccines,’” Bennett said, beginning to sob. “This one leaves me crying, missing him so much.”

The pharmacist leaned over and gave Bennett a hug in her chair.

“He would want you to do this,” the pharmacist said. “You have to know.”

Methodology

Death rates compare the number of deaths in various groups with an adjustment for the number of people in each group. The death rates listed for the fully vaccinated, the unvaccinated and those vaccinated with boosters were calculated by the CDC using a sample of deaths from 23 health departments in the country that record vaccine status, including boosters, for deaths related to covid-19. The CDC study assigns deaths to the month when a patient contracted covid-19, not the month of death. The latest data published in April reflected deaths of people who contracted covid as of February. The CDC study of deaths among the vaccinated is online, and the data can be downloaded.

The death rates for fully vaccinated people, unvaccinated people and fully vaccinated people who received an additional booster are expressed as deaths per 100,000 people. The death rates are also called incidence rates. The CDC estimated the population sizes from census data and vaccination records. The study does not include partially vaccinated people in the deaths or population. The CDC adjusted the population sizes for inaccuracies in the vaccination data. The death data is provisional and subject to change. The study sample includes the population eligible for boosters, which was originally 18 and older, and now is 12 and older.

To compare death rates between groups with different vaccination status, the CDC uses incidence rate ratios. For example, if one group has a rate of 10 deaths per 100,000 people, the death incidence rate would be 10. Another group may have a death incidence rate of 2.5. The ratio between the first group and the second group is the rate of 10 divided by the rate of 2.5, so the incidence rate ratio would be 4 (10÷2.5=4). That means the first group dies at a rate four times that of the second group.

The CDC calculates the death incidence rates and incidence rate ratios by age groups. It also calculates a value for the entire population adjusted for the size of the population in each age group. The Post used those age-adjusted total death incidence rates and incidence rate ratios.

The Post calculated the share of deaths by vaccine status from the sample of death records the CDC used to calculate death incidence rates by vaccine status. As of April, that data included 44,000 deaths of people who contracted covid in January and February.

The share of deaths for each vaccine status does not include deaths for partially vaccinated people because they are not included in the CDC data.

The Post calculated the share of deaths in each age group from provisional covid-19 death records that have age details from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. That data assigns deaths by the date of death, not the date on which the person contracted covid-19. That data does not include any information on vaccine status of the people who died.