As the U.S. death toll from the pandemic nears one million people and the worldwide death toll hits six million, new data suggests that the recent Omicron wave was much deadlier for the elderly, whether they were vaccinated or not, than previously understood.
We know that Omicron snuck past most people's natural and vaccine-given immunity, creating a wave of confirmed cases in the U.S. in December and January that was exponentially higher than any we've previously seen in the COVID pandemic. And this larger number of cases, even if the majority of them were mild, did lead to a spike in deaths in the past three months even in the highly vaccinated Bay Area — over 10% more deaths per week than during the earlier Delta wave.
But many of those deaths occurred in patients who were vaccinated and boosted, as Bay Area News Group reports this week, further confirming that while the vaccines may be highly effective, they are not as effective for everyone. And it confirms that you still don't want Omicron, and you definitely don't want to risk spreading it to elderly parents and grandparents despite their vaccine status.
In California, in the Omicron wave alone, 436 patients have died to date despite being fully vaccinated and boosted, and over 1,300 people died despite having two vaccine doses. That's compared to 3,000 deaths during this wave among the unvaccinated in California — and 2,900 among the unvaccinated in the Delta wave.
Compared to the Delta wave, Omicron led to more serious outcomes for the vaccinated — only 533 people who were fully vaccinated died during the Delta wave in California.
"We’ve seen some chinks in the armor of vaccines that we didn’t see before," says Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci, speaking to Bay Area News Group. "As good as the vaccines are, they’re not 100% protection."
We can see this in microcosm with 10 deaths that occurred in Santa Cruz County during a three-week period in the Omicron surge. Of those deaths, nine occurred in patients who had at least two vaccine doses, and five of those patients had been boosted.
But, all nine patients were 70 or older, and most had underlying health conditions. According to the county's data, one patient was in his early 100s, three were in their 90s, two were in their 80s, and the remaining three were in their 70s. Throughout the pandemic, it has been the elderly, and especially those with specific health problems, who have had the worst outcomes from COVID infection, and despite creating milder infections for many, the Omicron variant was no different.
Looking forward to brighter days with much less infection and death, infectious disease experts at UCSF tell the Chronicle this week that it's not an inevitability that the 60+ percent of Americans who have not yet had COVID-19 will definitely get some version of it this year or next.
"From my perspective, no, it’s not inevitable," says Dr. Bob Wachter, Chair of Medicine at UCSF and a frequent voice of optimism and pragmatism over the last two years. Wachter cites the decreasing presence of the virus in the Bay Area in particularly, which is going to lead to far fewer chances for people to get exposed in the coming months.
Certainly more variants and winter surges could be on their way, but we should not throw in the towel and go expose ourselves on purpose, says Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist.
"Are we all going to get it? Yes, biologically, that might happen,” Chin-Hong tells the Chronicle. "Are we at a time to embrace that philosophy? No, because the virus is still causing a lot of suffering. Almost 2,000 deaths per day [nationally] is no walk in the park."
In the last seven days alone, the Bay Area has seen an additional 151 deaths — and we should remember that such a significant and swift death toll was hard to fathom in the early days of the pandemic. In May 2020, it took over a month for the region to rack up 150 deaths, despite no one being vaccinated. And even as most businesses were back open last fall, toward the end of the Delta wave, it took about three weeks for the Bay Area to tally that many COVID deaths.