The coronavirus vaccines held their ground during the delta variant’s dominance, and health officials are expecting them to keep people from getting sick during omicron’s rein. The latest data show that unvaccinated individuals are roughly 10 times more likely to get COVID-19 than vaccinated and boosted people, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky has said — and they’re about 20 times more likely to die from it.
Still, because no vaccine is 100-percent effective, breakthrough infections do occur. And on the rare occasion that a vaccinated person falls seriously ill with COVID-19, it’s most often an older adult. Earlier this fall, federal data showed that about 70 percent of breakthrough infections that required hospitalization were among adults 65 and older. This population also accounted for 87 percent of breakthrough deaths.
A study published Dec. 3 in The Lancet Microbe mirrors the CDC’s earlier findings: The majority of patients hospitalized with severe breakthrough cases at the Yale New Haven Health System from early August to mid-October were older, with an average age of about 71.5, researchers found. What’s more, hospital data tracked by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that more than two-thirds (69 percent) of breakthrough COVID-19 hospitalizations from June to September occurred among people ages 65 and older, despite this population having the highest vaccination rates.
Chronic diseases, delta and dwindling immunity are likely to blame
Throughout the pandemic, older adults have been more likely to suffer from COVID complications than their younger peers, and experts say the same reasons that made them more susceptible from the get-go could be causing them to bear the burden of these uncommon severe breakthrough cases, although research is ongoing.
Take, for example, underlying health conditions, which affect about 80 percent of older Americans. Many chronic diseases put people at greater risk for a serious case of COVID-19, and emerging research shows these illnesses can still be a disadvantage even after vaccination. KFF’s analysis on breakthrough cases, published on Dec. 15, found that larger shares of fully vaccinated adults hospitalized with COVID-19 had chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, heart failure and lung disease, compared to patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who were not fully vaccinated.