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Are COVID Vaccines Working in the Real World?

Are COVID vaccines reducing coronavirus cases and deaths? There are new data from hospitals in California and Israel and the news is good!

You no doubt read the early COVID vaccine announcements with excitement. We sure did. Large clinical trials of the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines revealed 94%-95% effectiveness against COVID-19 for both the Moderna and PfizerBioNTech shots. That meant that within a week or two of the second shot, most people did not get sick from the coronavirus. Now, people want to know if the COVID vaccines are performing as well in real life.

Good News! COVID Vaccines ARE Working:

COVID vaccines are working to protect health care workers from catching COVID-19. That is the conclusion from a few research letters published in the New England Journal of Medicine (March 23, 2021).  Keep in mind that health care workers are among the most vulnerable because they are ones coming into direct contact with sick patients.

In one study, health care workers at University of California, San Diego and University of California, Los Angeles were vaccinated starting in December, 2020. They also were tested for asymptomatic COVID-19 infections.

Within about six weeks, more than 28,000 people had both doses of the vaccine. 37 of them tested positive, but only 7 of them got positive test results two weeks or more after the second dose. At the time of the study, there was a surge of infections in southern California.

The researchers conclude:

“The rarity of positive test results 14 days after administration of the second dose of vaccine is encouraging and suggest that the efficacy of these vaccines is maintained outside the trial setting. These data underscore the critical importance of continued public health mitigation measures (masking, physical distancing, daily symptom screening, and regular testing), even in environments with a high incidence of vaccination, until herd immunity is reached at large.”

Israeli Health Care Workers and COVID Vaccines:

A second study from Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem produced similarly encouraging results (New England Journal of Medicine, March 23, 2021). When more than 5,000 healthcare workers were vaccinated, their incidence of COVID-19 declined dramatically. During the study, Jerusalem was undergoing a spike of coronavirus variant B.1.1.7.

According to the investigators:

“These findings suggest that widespread and effective vaccination among health care workers provides a safe environment, even in the presence of a high rate of SARS-CoV-2 infection in the community.”

The Israeli Curve Is Impressive!

Take a look at the data from Israel:

On September 27, 2020, the 7-day average of new cases was 6,276. By November 11, 2020, the 7-day average had dropped to around 600 cases. By mid-January, 2021 another surge hit. The 7-day average number of cases hit about 8,600. On March 24, 2021 the 7-day average was back down to about 830 cases. Still not ideal, but the steep decline over the last three weeks is impressive.

What makes these data interesting is the COVID vaccines. The country now has over 50% of its population fully vaccinated. That is the best scorecard in the world.

Not Such Good Data:

Let’s travel to Germany. Remember, the PfizerBioNTech vaccine got its start in Germany. The country should be awash in COVID vaccines. Au contraire. At last count less than 5% of the population is fully vaccinated. New COVID cases are on the rise. The 7-day average is around 16,000 cases.

Italy is also in trouble:

Back in June, 2020 Italy experienced a 7-day average of new cases of only about 300. By mid November the 7-day average peaked around 35,000. That declined to around 12,000 but is now back up to almost 23,000. Less than 5% of the population is fully vaccinated.

The US peaked on January 8, 2021. The 7-day average was right around 260,000. REALLY BAD! Since then, though, there has been a pretty dramatic decline, though the slope has begun to plateau over the last two weeks. At last count, the 7-day average was around 57,000 cases. 14% of the American population is fully vaccinated and 26% has had at least one shot.

Will COVID Vaccines End the Pandemic?

We do not know if the COVID vaccines will quickly put an end to the pandemic or if the virus will linger for years. Only time will tell. The new data from hospitals in California and Israel are encouraging. We hope that the downward trends in hospitalizations and deaths continue as we begin to approach herd immunity.

What Are the Implications for You?

Many people assume that once they are fully vaccinated, they don’t have to worry about COVID-19 infection. After all, the vaccines are highly effective.

However, a report from the state of Washington reminds us that they are still not perfect. The state has vaccinated more than one million citizens. Out of those, more than 100 people have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Eight patients have been hospitalized and two died.

While that is a small fraction of the total vaccinated, it serves as a reminder that we still need to pay attention to masks, distance and hand hygiene. Once we have achieved herd immunity and case counts drop dramatically, we can all let our masks down. Until then, we still need to exercise caution.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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  • Abeles, S. R. and Torriani, F.J., "SARS-CoV-2 Infection after Vaccination in Health Care Workers in California," New England Journal of Medicine, March, 23, 2021, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc2101927
  • Benenson, S., et al, "BNT162b2 mRNA Covid-19 Vaccine Effectiveness among Health Care Workers," New England Journal of Medicine, March 23, 2021, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc2101951
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