COVID-19 shots helped prevent thousands of senior deaths in Mich., report finds

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Vaccines may have helped prevent the COVID-19 deaths of 3,900 seniors in Michigan and hundreds of thousands across the United States between January and May this year, according to a federal report released Tuesday.

The vaccines contributed to the reduction of 8,500 COVID-19 infections in the state, and 1,400 hospitalizations, according to the report by researchers at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Nationwide, vaccines were linked to a reduction of 265,000 COVID-19 infections, 107,000 hospitalizations and 39,000 deaths among Medicare beneficiaries between January and May 2021.

The number of infections, hospitalizatons and deaths prevented by COVID-19 vaccinations would be much higher if researchers had looked at all age groups and across the entire span of pandemic, said Dr. Nigel Paneth, an emeritus distinguished professor of epidemiology and pediatrics and biostatics at Michigan State University. 

"If you were to look at the entire summer and fall, and younger people as well, the numbers would be much larger,"Paneth said "This is just the tip of the iceberg, as far as what vaccination has achieved. 

"I would not be surprised if the total number (of lives saved) is two or three times higher." 

The report was released as Michigan's COVID-19 infection numbers have been trending upward for 13 weeks amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, underscoring the need for people to be vaccinated. 

Last week, the state added 22,524 cases and 214 deaths from the virus, an increase from the week prior when the state added 19,344 cases and 201 deaths. In mid-September, the Michigan added 18,313 cases and 159 deaths from the virus.

Michigan has had 1,039,337 confirmed cases and 21,139 deaths through Monday, according to the most recent data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The state's first COVID-19 deaths were confirmed on March 10, 2020.

At a Tuesday press conference, officials from Detroit's Henry Ford Health System noted that admissions for COVID-19 at the system's six hospitals are higher now than they were at this same time last year. They said vaccination is the key to stopping the virus. 

"A year ago, we had a total of 65 patients hospitalized with COVID between our hospitals," Henry Ford's Executive Vice President and Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Adnan Munkarah said. "As of this morning, we have 144 are admitted with COVID-19 disease."

Henry Ford Macomb Hospital had the most admitted, with 44 COVID-19 patients, followed by Henry Ford Allegiance Hospital in Jackson with 28; Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit with 26; Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital with 24; and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital with 20 patients. Kingswood, Henry Ford's psychiatric hospital, also had two COVID-19 patients admitted as of Tuesday.

Researchers on the study released Tuesday found that during the first five months of the vaccine roll-out, the shots were linked to a reduction of 5,600 deaths among nursing home Medicare beneficiaries across the country, a group that was disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The researchers looked at a combination of individual Medicare fee-for-service claims and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on county-level vaccination rates to estimate the net reduction in infections, hospitalizations and deaths. The data came from 67.2 million Medicare beneficiaries associated with the first five months of the vaccine roll-out. 

“This report reaffirms what we hear routinely from states: COVID-19 vaccines save lives, prevent hospitalizations, and reduce infection,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a Tuesday statement. 

“The Biden-Harris administration has prioritized getting vaccines quickly to pharmacies, nursing homes, doctors’ offices and even provided increased reimbursement rates for at-home COVID-19 vaccinations, so that seniors and others can easily get vaccinated.”

The vaccines were first distributed in mid-December 2020 during the final days of the Trump administration.

More than 352,000 people nationallydied of the coronavirus during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when vaccines were not available, with nearly 80% among people 65 and older who were eligible for Medicare, according to the federal agency. 

Researchers found that from January through May of this year, weekly COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths decreased 11-12% for every 10% increase in county vaccination rates among Medicare beneficiaries. Vaccination grew from 1% to 47% among adults 18 to 64 over the time frame, and from 1% to 80% among seniors 65 and older.

COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths were reduced among all racial and ethnic groups as the vaccination rate increased, according to the analysis of data in 48 states. Texas and Hawaii were excluded due to data reporting limitations. 

American Indian and Alaska Native Medicare beneficiaries experienced the greatest reductions in infections, hospitalizations and deaths linked to increases in vaccination.

The study also found that seniors were better protected from the virus when vaccination rates were high among all adults in a community.  

Henry Ford Health's Munkarah said the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests has been hovering between about 8.5% and 11% for many days, compared with positivity rates that were as low as 1% earlier in the summer.

"As we have seen for the past couple of months, the vast majority of individuals we have hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated," he said. "Better compliance with vaccination continues to be our first way to continue to fight this virus and to make sure we put the pandemic behind us."

Munkarah noted that vaccines are now widely available, and the health system has converted from offering them at mass vaccination sites to providing the shots in doctors' offices. The vaccines are also readily available at pharmacies.

Booster shots are also being provided to people who received their second dose of Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago, and who are either age 65 or older, or age 55 through 64 with health conditions. 

Henry Ford Health System was the first health in Michigan to require its  employees be vaccinated, and as of Tuesday morning more than 99% have complied, said Robert Riney, president of health care operations and chief operating officer. Employees were given until Friday at midnight to comply. 

"This means that 99% of our workforce, which is 33,000 people strong, are either fully vaccinated, on their way to completing their two-dose regimen ... or have received a medical or religious exemptions," Riney said.

More than 30,000 Henry Ford employees now are fully vaccinated, while about 1,900 employees were granted exemptions, mostly for religious reasons, he said. 

kbouffard@detroitnews.com