Is Omicron ‘More Deadly’ For The Vaccinated?

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A report on California’s COVID-19 deaths revealed that more vaccinated people died due to SARS-CoV-2 during the peak of omicron compared to the number of deaths recorded during the peak of the delta wave. 

An Unsettling Picture

A Bay Area News Group analysis of COVID-19 deaths within the state compared the fatalities during the delta variant surge last summer with the fatalities reported at the height of this winter’s omicron surge. 

The collected data showed an alarming trend as more deaths among vaccinated people were documented during the omicron wave than in the delta wave. Based on the data, 1,331 deaths from fully vaccinated people were reported from Jan. 14 to Feb. 10, 2022, while 533 deaths from fully vaccinated cases were documented from Aug. 25 to Sept. 21, 2021. It is worth noting that 436 of the 1,331 were boosted. 

The figures depicted an unsettling picture since omicron was previously described by medical experts as the strain that caused milder illness compared to the more virulent delta variant. And yet about three times more vaccinated people died of COVID-19 during omicron’s peak than during delta’s heyday. 

“We’ve seen some chinks in the armor of vaccines that we didn’t see before. As good as the vaccines are, they’re not 100% protection,” Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci told The Mercury News

Omicron vs. Delta

Late last year, omicron was put in the spotlight after researchers and medical experts started seeing a rise in its transmissions just weeks after it was first reported in South Africa. Preliminary data quickly pushed the World Health Organization to classify the strain as a variant of concern. 

Scientists found that the SARS-CoV-2 underwent several mutations to transform to omicron, and the resulting variant was more infectious than the delta variant. The high transmissibility of omicron made it a growing concern among medical experts and governments worldwide. 

In January, it was established that the omicron variant had higher transmissibility than the delta strain. Researchers also found that it was 2.7-3.7 times more infectious than delta in vaccinated and boosted people, as per Health.com

Despite the threat due to its high transmissibility rate, doctors said the omicron variant mostly caused milder illness in vaccinated patients. The decreased severity of omicron was acknowledged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but the public health agency noted that the gravity of the infection could be affected by the presence of other health concerns and vaccination status. 

Should We Be Alarmed?

The recent analysis on the recorded deaths from omicron and delta may seem worrying. But certain factors should be considered when looking at the whole picture. One of them has to do with the age of the patients. 

Based on the collected data, of the 10 COVID-19 patients who died in Santa Cruz County during the reported period, one was in his early 100s, while three were in their 90s. Two other cases were in their 80s, while three more were in their 70s and had underlying conditions. Among the ten, only one was unvaccinated, and he died in his 50s. 

UC-San Francisco infectious disease expert Dr. George Rutherford said the raw numbers only made it seem like the incidence of deaths among the vaccinated was worse during the omicron surge. In reality, their rates of dying remained far less than the unvaccinated population. 

Another factor to consider was the difference between the omicron strain and the delta variant. As a more fast-spreading variant, it was inevitable for omicron to infect more people. In January, state figures showed more than 100,000 new cases daily. On the contrary, fewer than 25,000 were testing positive daily during the peak of the delta wave. 

Ghilarducci pointed out that since more people were fully vaccinated when omicron arrived, fewer unvaccinated people were left to infect. Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody also noted that vaccination rates were higher among older people, so those who were already more at risk of catching the virus would contribute to the growing number of breakthrough infections, which could be fatal for their age. 

Fighting The Virus

The CDC has continued to recommend the vaccines as the best tool to fight SARS-CoV-2 and its new variants. For the agency, “getting vaccinated and staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccines” is the best way to protect oneself amid the ongoing pandemic. 

In addition, precautionary measures such as the wearing of well-fitting masks in indoor public places should still be followed. In February, the CDC launched a new digital tool on its website to help communities decide what prevention steps they should implement based on their local COVID-19 data. 

With the tool, communities are assigned low, medium, or high levels. Low-level communities pertain to areas with a lower number of cases and hospitalizations. These places do not require masks in indoor public settings. Contrariwise, high-level communities require masks indoors and other precautions since they have higher cases and hospitalizations. 

The bottom line is people should not be complacent even though omicron has been receding. Everyone, especially people belonging to the older population and at higher risk, should continue to take caution and follow the COVID-19 guidelines on top of getting vaccinated. 

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