Overwhelming number of Tennessee's COVID-19 deaths among unvaccinated population

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nurse Erin Goett vaccinates Kylee Silvels, 13, at East Lake Park in Chattanooga on Saturday, July 10, 2021. Get Vaccinated Chattanooga sponsored the block party event.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nurse Erin Goett vaccinates Kylee Silvels, 13, at East Lake Park in Chattanooga on Saturday, July 10, 2021. Get Vaccinated Chattanooga sponsored the block party event.

A recent statewide report reveals how rare serious and fatal COVID-19 infections occur in fully vaccinated Tennesseans, confirming the mantra heralded by local health officials in the months since coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths have plummeted thanks to highly effective vaccines.

Between Jan. 1 and July 8, 24 fully vaccinated Tennesseans died and another 164 were hospitalized due to COVID-19, according to the latest critical indicators report from the Tennessee Department of Health - which in May began including data on COVID-19 vaccine "breakthrough cases."

During that same time period, the Tennessee Department of Health reported 4,621 coronavirus deaths and 5,879 hospitalizations, meaning Tennesseans who haven't been vaccinated account for 97.2% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 99.5% of fatalities in the state this year.

Though many of those who died as a result of the winter surge did not have access to the COVID-19 vaccines at the time of their illness, Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said "these are powerful statements affirming the effectiveness of the current vaccines."

"Vaccinated people almost never at the present time wind up in the hospital," Schaffner said. "People wouldn't have to go, their family members wouldn't have to be hospitalized, there wouldn't be all this distress - and there still is plenty - if they'd only get vaccinated."

Tennessee's data mirrors national trends. An Associated Press analysis of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from May shows that "breakthrough" infections in fully vaccinated people accounted for fewer than 1,200 of more than 107,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations, or about 1.1%, and only about 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May were in fully vaccinated people. That translates to about 0.8%, or five deaths per day on average, according to the AP.

However, the AP states that the CDC "has not estimated what percentage of hospitalizations and deaths are in fully vaccinated people, citing limitations in the data," such as a handful of states that don't report breakthrough infections, and others that are more diligent about tracking them. So the statistics probably understates the infection rate, AP reported.

A joint statement from the CDC and Food and Drug Administration released Thursday states that "Virtually all COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are among those who are unvaccinated."

"People who are fully vaccinated are protected from severe disease and death, including from the variants currently circulating in the country such as delta. People who are not vaccinated remain at risk," the statement reads, noting that "Americans who have been fully vaccinated do not need a booster shot at this time. FDA, CDC, and NIH are engaged in a science-based, rigorous process to consider whether or when a booster might be necessary."

Health officials note that in the case of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which require two doses spread out several weeks apart, receiving both doses is necessary to achieve protection.

Though the COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. are highly effective, no vaccine prevents illness 100% of the time. That's because vaccinated people sometimes get infected before their body has time to build immunity, which typically takes about two weeks, and some people may not have as robust of an immune response as others, such as older adults or people who take certain medications. Some variants of the coronavirus may be better able to evade vaccines, although current data suggest the U.S. vaccines offer protection against most variants.

Despite the compelling data in favor of vaccinations, Tennessee remains among the least vaccinated states in the country with 37.9% of Tennesseans having been fully vaccinated as of Friday, according to the department of health.

Becky Barnes, administrator of the Hamilton County Health Department, told Hamilton County Commissioners during a meeting Wednesday that the department is preparing for a third COVID-19 surge as the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus picks up steam, especially in pockets of the country with low vaccination rates.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County's COVID-19 cases at lowest levels in months, but delta variant could reverse trend)

The delta variant is most prevalent in the midwestern region (Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska), where it represents an estimated 72% of all recent coronavirus cases, and recently became the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the United States, representing more than half of new COVID-19 cases across the country, according to CDC data released Wednesday.

The CDC estimates the delta variant accounts for about 21% of cases in the Southeast (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida) - up from an estimated 3.9% two weeks ago.

"We're always trying to prepare and think about what the future may hold," Barnes said. "Clearly, our way out of any potential third wave is high vaccination rates, and our vaccination rates are lagging in our community right now - we're lagging certainly behind Nashville and Knoxville - and Tennessee as a state is lagging behind other states. The current vaccines have good protection, so that would be my encouragement to everyone - if you're not fully vaccinated, get fully vaccinated."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.