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Even with omicron, coronavirus vaccines have been enormously effective

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/16/2022 Philip Bump
Carter Giglio, 8, joined by service dog Barney, shows off the bandage over his injection site after being vaccinated, Nov. 3, 2021, at Children's National Hospital in Washington. © Carolyn Kaster/AP Carter Giglio, 8, joined by service dog Barney, shows off the bandage over his injection site after being vaccinated, Nov. 3, 2021, at Children's National Hospital in Washington.

The good news is that Hong Kong’s spike in coronavirus cases has begun to fade. The bad news is that, before it did, Hong Kong had one of the highest population-adjusted death tolls seen anywhere in the world since the pandemic began.

In a remarkable series of tweets Monday, the Financial Times’s John Burn-Murdoch illustrated the dire situation in Hong Kong since the beginning of February. He contrasted its spike in cases with a similar increase in New Zealand — but then pointed out the wide divergence in the number of those cases that resulted in death. (Notice that he shifted the case totals to align with the increase in deaths, so his graphs depict cases still rising.)

The difference? Vaccinations.

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You will probably not be surprised to hear this, but it still bears repeating. Hong Kong not only is less robustly vaccinated than other countries, Burn-Murdoch pointed out, but it’s also seen a lower rate of vaccination among older residents — those most at risk — and has heavily relied on the non-mRNA vaccine developed by the Chinese government. The combination of those factors has been devastating.

Burn-Murdoch’s analysis offers an interesting way of considering the utility of vaccines around the world. In Hong Kong during the period indicated in the above data, nearly 5 percent of those who tested positive for the virus died of it, a remarkably high fatality rate. If we consider the period after the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant, we can generate that same value for a range of countries (using figures compiled by Our World in Data).

A pattern emerges: Places that saw more deaths relative to case totals were almost uniformly places with lower vaccination rates. On the graph below, circles (scaled to the number of deaths since mid-December) toward the top left have higher fatality and lower vaccination rates. At the bottom right, higher vaccination and lower fatality.

The United States is indicated, as is the range of values represented by each of the states and D.C. Using The Washington Post’s compiled data, we can create a similar graph just within that boxed range.

Here, the correlation isn’t as strikingly obvious, but there’s still a pattern. The horizontal dashed lines show the average fatality rates for states within each 10-point range of vaccinations. As the density of vaccinations increases, the fatality rate decreases.

Again, this is solely data from the omicron surge, cases and deaths from the past three months. That’s important to emphasize because there’s a common misunderstanding that omicron is fairly harmless, readily evades vaccines or both. This shows both the toll the variant has incurred in the U.S. and that vaccination appears to make a difference.

That’s more obvious if we go one geographic level lower. New York City publishes weekly data on the relative hospitalization rates of the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations. As cases surged early this year, so did hospitalizations within both groups. But, at the peak in cases, the rate of hospitalizations was 13 times higher among the unvaccinated than among the vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also collects data on vaccine efficacy, but it operates at a delay — particularly when tallying fatalities. Its most recent figures on the death toll are from the beginning of January, near the front end of the country’s recent surge. But we can expect that, as those numbers are updated, we’ll see a similar national effect as was recorded in New York City: More vaccination means fewer deaths.

Again, this should not be a surprise. But given that the virus continues to spread (and that there are indicators the recent decline in cases might reverse), it’s worth reiterating the unsurprising conclusion: Vaccinations save lives. Just in the U.S., well over 160,000 people died of the virus who might have lived had they been vaccinated.

Hong Kong serves as a stark lesson in that reality — but we have already learned that lesson frequently much closer to home.

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