How many California lives were saved by COVID-19 vaccines?

The arrival of the first COVID-19 vaccines in December 2020 marked the beginning of a new, safer phase of the pandemic.

With everything we know about life in the vaccine era — the injustices, the breakthrough infections, the partisan struggles for mandates — it was hard to know what life would have been like without the vaccines.

A new project by UC San Francisco researchers in collaboration with the California Department of Health paints the clearest picture yet of what the state would have looked like if the vaccines had never materialized.

In the first 10 months of their availability, COVID-19 vaccines prevented an estimated 1.5 million coronavirus infections, nearly 73,000 hospitalizations and nearly 20,000 deaths in California, according to a study published Friday in the journal JAMA Network Open.

The number of infections reported during those 10 months was 72% lower than would have been expected without vaccines, the study added.

“We know the vaccines are working, but what has been lacking is understanding the magnitude of the population-level impact of these vaccines across California,” said Dr. Nathan Lo, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF and co-author of the study.

“The impact that vaccines have had and the results that we’re having are dramatic,” Lo said. Each of these thwarted cases represents an opportunity to “enable people to actually go to work, be safe with their families, and avoid such socio-economic disruption.”

From January 1, 2020 – when few Californians could have heard of, let alone been exposed to, the novel coronavirus – to October 16, 2021, the state recorded 4.6 million coronavirus infections. At the end of that period, just over 27 million residents aged 12 and over had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine – nearly 80% of the eligible population.

To see what a vaccine-free California might have looked like, the study team created two statistical models — essentially mathematical maps of a world that never was.

For their primary model, the researchers calculated coronavirus infection rates from November 2020 to October 2021 in children under the age of 11, the portion of the state’s population who were not yet vaccine-eligible at the time. Then they applied that infection rate to the rest of the population.

The second model took a different approach. Researchers divided the vaccine-eligible population into four age groups and analyzed the estimated risks of infection, hospitalization and death for each, as well as the immunity each group had gained through vaccination and previous infections.

The two models achieved strikingly similar results. The first showed that 1.52 million infections, 72,930 hospitalizations and 19,430 deaths were prevented in the first 10 months of the vaccination campaign. The second estimated vaccines prevented slightly fewer infections (1.4 million) but more hospitalizations (84,330) and deaths (22,620).

Last year, the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation focused on health care for underserved communities, found that through November 30, 2021, the US immunization campaign saved a total of 1.1 million American lives and prevented 10.3 million hospitalizations nationwide , a period approximately six weeks longer than the California study covered.

In an updated model released earlier this month, analysts estimated that vaccines have prevented 66 million U.S. infections, 17 million hospitalizations and 2.2 million deaths, and saved $900 billion in healthcare costs since a nurse was first shot administered in New York.

The California numbers show a more modest effect of the vaccines, but the study’s authors said they deliberately kept their estimates on the conservative side by omitting people who could have contracted the disease if vaccinated people didn’t get their shots.

“The true numbers are definitely significantly higher, proving even more the importance of vaccination,” said Sophia Tan, research data scientist at UCSF and lead author of the study.

In addition, the models left out the secondary losses of COVID-19 that never occurred: the missed school or work days, the lingering effects of long COVID, the potentially ruinous financial costs of a long illness or hospital stay, the unquantifiable grief.

According to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, each person who dies from COVID-19 is estimated to have nine immediate family members.

Tanya Osborne-McKenzie, chief nursing officer at MLK Community Healthcare in Los Angeles, noted that the study also fails to take into account that when hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, people cannot attend to other health issues.

In the early days of the pandemic, “shift to shift, day to day, we had a lot of people dying,” she said. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital is still full, she said — but with patients seeking care for illnesses that might not have been able to be treated in the worst of the pandemic.

“So you see that influence right there,” Osborne-McKenzie said. “We would not have been able to provide adequate care to these patients if we had not mitigated some of the COVID patients.” How many California lives were saved by COVID-19 vaccines?

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