Early US vaccine efforts may have prevented 140K COVID deaths, 3 million cases

Vaccinator discussing COVID vaccine
Vaccinator discussing COVID vaccine

Province of British Columbia / Flickr cc

The first push of the US COVID-19 vaccination campaign averted an estimated 140,000 deaths and more than 3 million infections by early May, saving $625 billion to $1.4 trillion, suggests an observational study yesterday in Health Affairs.

In the first known study to evaluate the effects of state-level vaccination campaigns, a team led by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) researchers modeled the number of COVID-19 deaths that would have occurred from Dec 21, 2020, to May 9, 2021, had it not been for vaccines.

The difference between the actual number of deaths and the modeling data provided an estimate of the number of deaths prevented.

All states benefit, some more than others

Vaccines prevented an estimated 139,393 deaths and 3.1 million infections in the United States after the Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines on Dec 11, 2020, followed by the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines on Dec 18 and Feb 27, 2021, respectively.

"The existence of multiple COVID-19 vaccines offers hope that the ongoing vaccination campaign will slow COVID-19 transmission, save lives, and enable a return to normal activities," the study authors wrote.

All 50 states and Washington, DC, on average, saw five fewer COVID-19 deaths per 10,000 adult residents in the first 5 months of the campaign. After adjusting for population size, New York realized the largest benefit, with 11.7 fewer COVID-19 deaths per 10,000 people. Hawaii saw the smallest reduction, with 1.1 fewer deaths per 10,000 people.

Vaccination progress at the state level varied over time. West Virginia was the first state to achieve 10 doses per 100 adults, on Jan 16, while Idaho was the last, on Feb 4. The first state to reach 20 doses per 100 adults was Alaska, on Jan 29, while Alabama was the last, on Feb 21. California was the first to achieve 120 doses per 100 adults, on May 6, but many states have yet to meet that benchmark.

The median number of days between reaching 10 and 20 doses per 100 adults was 19 days, and the median number between 20 and 40 doses per 100 adults was 24 days.

Ensuring equitable access to vaccines

In a RAND Corporation press release, senior author Christopher Whaley, PhD, said the study "brings into focus the dramatic success of the early months of the nation's coronavirus vaccine rollout. The findings provide support for policies that further expand vaccine administration to enable a larger proportion of the nation's population to benefit."

The US government allocated $13 billion for vaccine development and manufacturing efforts through the end of 2020, the authors said, noting that control of the pandemic relies on broad vaccination. "Our results suggest that further efforts to vaccinate populations globally and in a coordinated fashion will be critical to achieving greater control of the COVID-19 pandemic," they concluded.

The researchers urged fair allocation of vaccines to particularly susceptible populations (eg, racial minorities) who are less likely to receive vaccinations. "Ensuring that vulnerable patient populations equally share the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns is critical," they wrote. "Although this analysis is beyond the scope of our study, as data become available, it is imperative that researchers continue to evaluate disparities in vaccine access and their consequences in creating further hot spots and heterogeneity in burden."

As of today, 60% of Americans 12 and older have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and 51% are fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times COVID tracker. Vermont leads the nation, with 67% of its population fully vaccinated, while Alabama and Mississippi lag, at 36%.

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