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Fact check: Too soon to say how many dying of COVID-19 in England were vaccinated

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/29/2021 Miriam Fauzia, USA TODAY
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The claim: The vast majority of those now dying of COVID-19 in England were vaccinated

After loosening mask restrictions in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that fully vaccinated Americans mask up again indoors in areas of high COVID-19 transmission.

The agency's reversal comes as the delta variant – the most transmissible and contagious version of the coronavirus – has ignited cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the nation, particularly in states with low vaccination coverage

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"Virtually all COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in the United States are now occurring among unvaccinated individuals," said Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, during a July 8 White House press briefing

But a claim circulating on social media alleges the opposite was true earlier this month in England – that coronavirus deaths are more of a concern among the vaccinated.

"The vast majority of those now dying with covid are people who were VACCINATED against it," says a July 2 Facebook post. "Public Health England (PHE) just released a new report showing that at least 62 percent of all deaths associated with the Wuhan coronavirus (Covid-19) are occurring in people who were already 'vaccinated.'" 

The post, which copies its text from a July 1 Natural News article, a website known for spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories, goes on to add this same report shows vaccinated people are "three times more likely to die" from the delta variant compared to those who aren't vaccinated.

The claim stems from a Public Health England briefing released June 25, but it both drastically overstates the nature of the data and botches the math.

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USA TODAY has reached out to the Facebook poster and the original article's author for comment.

Data not yet available on deaths by vaccine status

The post claims the "vast majority" of those dying with COVID-19 in England now are unvaccinated, then identifies that specific stat as 62%.

But British officials say that's nonsense because no such data actually exists yet.

The public health report only identified the vaccination status for the delta variant deaths. For the time period in that report, the delta variant was responsible for 117 of the 4,408 COVID-19 deaths in England, less than 3%.


Video: Covid doctor says he tells dying patients it's too late for vaccine (The Independent)

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The post, however, presented the claim as if it was referring to all deaths.

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Data on deaths by vaccination status for all other coronavirus strains was not yet available, PHE spokesperson James McCreadie told USA TODAY in an email. 

Deaths among older adults

For the deaths within the delta variant group, the post focuses on vaccination status while ignoring other critical risk factors – most notably the age of those who died.

While the document did report 70 of the 117 deaths among the partially and fully vaccinated, the data actually shows deaths were heavily among older adults. Only around 3% of delta variant-related deaths were among vaccinated adults under age 50. 

In the U.K., like in the U.S., vaccination coverage is much higher in older adults since they received first priority. This includes the elderly, clinically vulnerable individuals and those with pre-existing conditions, all of whom are already at a much greater risk for hospitalization and death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"When most people are vaccinated, most infections and deaths are expected to be among those vaccinated," Dr. Muge Cevik, a clinical lecturer in infectious diseases and medical virology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told Reuters.

Beyond the age issue, the post simply gets the math wrong.

Out of the 117 delta variant deaths, 44 were among the unvaccinated of all age groups compared to 70 partially and fully vaccinated. 70 is around 1.6 times more than 44, not three times more.  

It's important to note the 117 deaths were a very small proportion of the more than 92,000 confirmed delta variant cases recorded between Feb. 1 and June 21 in the U.K.

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Cases, on the other hand, were more prevalent among the unvaccinated, who accounted for 60% of the delta variant infections in that time span. There were far fewer cases among the fully vaccinated (only around 8%), an observation supporting emerging evidence that vaccine effectiveness against the delta variant is high after two doses. 

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that the vast majority of those now dying of COVID-19 in England were vaccinated. The 62% statistic specified is based on data identifying vaccination status for only the delta variant deaths, which comprise only 3% of total COVID-19 deaths in the country. Data on deaths by vaccination status for all other coronavirus strains in England is not yet available.  

The public health report does show 70 out of 117 delta variant-related deaths were among older vaccinated adults. But experts say it's expected that the vaccinated would account for the majority of deaths as the number of people vaccinated rises, particularly among older adults who are already at a greater risk for COVID-19. 

Our fact-check sources:

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Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Too soon to say how many dying of COVID-19 in England were vaccinated

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