The proportion of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations among vaccinated Pennsylvania residents rose sharply last month, reflecting the fact that a higher percentage of the population has now gotten the shot but also likely that protection has waned somewhat, state health officials said Friday.
The latest Department of Health data on so-called "breakthrough” infections shows that between Sept. 5 and Oct. 4, vaccinated people represented just over a quarter — 26% — of more than 135,000 new infections and nearly 5,000 hospital admissions across the state. Death statistics for the last 30 days were not available because of lags in reporting and verification.
When the Health Department released its initial set of data on breakthrough cases Sept. 14, just 6% of cases and 5% of hospitalizations since January were among vaccinated residents.
As more people get vaccinated, the number of vaccinated people who contract the virus and wind up in the hospital will inevitably represent a greater share of the overall total.
State health officials cited that mathematical certainty but also the rise of the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus, along with waning immunity among some populations that have received the vaccine.
“The vaccines were designed to prevent severe illness and hospitalization, but no vaccine is 100%,” the state's acting physician general, Dr. Denise Johnson, said in a phone interview. “As we have more people vaccinated, there will be more cases in those vaccinated people. It doesn't mean the vaccines aren't working. They're working as designed."
The situation in Pennsylvania mirrors what is happening nationally. Breakthrough cases accounted for 14% of U.S. hospitalizations and 16% of deaths in June and July, about twice the percentage as earlier in the year, according to a study released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At a press briefing Friday, Johnson said state officials are seeking to learn more about Pennsylvania's breakthrough cases, including the length of time that people had been vaccinated before getting infected, whether they had underlying health conditions that increased the risk, and their age.
She said the data reinforced the case for booster shots. Last month, U.S. health officials approved a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine for all Americans 65 and older, along with higher-risk younger people.
“We know that the vaccines do give a great measure of protection,” Johnson said. “Even now, with the delta variant, with the waning immunity, the cases that we have, the hospitalizations that we have, people who are really ill, are still largely the unvaccinated.”
Separately, Commonwealth Partners, a free-market advocacy association based in Harrisburg, released weekly Health Department data that it obtained through an open-records request that showed similar increases in cases and hospitalizations among vaccinated people — along with rising deaths.
Those statistics covered a period between late April and late August and showed the spikes were particularly pronounced after delta became the dominant strain of the virus. About a third of the state's deaths from early July to mid-August were among vaccinated residents.
Gina Diorio, the group's public affairs director, accused the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf of seemingly concealing the more recent COVID-19 trends when state health officials released the first batch of breakthrough data last month.
“In September, (the Health Department) had to know that the current numbers were different from what they were releasing. Why not give Pennsylvanians current info? What’s to hide?" Diorio said. “Ultimately, this is about transparency. It shouldn’t have taken a Right-to-Know request for the Wolf administration to release this info to the public.”
Johnson said the focus last month was on gathering and analyzing voluminous year-to-date data on breakthrough infections, which she called a “huge lift for us," with a lot of manual work involved. She said it wasn't a policy choice.
“It was just a stepwise process for us, to get the huge backlog of data first and then try to analyze it and parse it out later. It just took us a lot of work to get there," she said.
Over the last month and since the beginning of 2021, the state's data indicates that Pennsylvania residents who remain unvaccinated against the coronavirus were far more likely to contract COVID-19, become hospitalized and die than those who got the shot.
Last month, even as the state was in the grips of delta, unvaccinated people had triple the risk of being infected and landing in the hospital, the numbers show.
Since January, the risk of death was six times as great among unvaccinated residents. At least 518 vaccinated residents have died, about 7% of the 2021 total.
“The great news is the vaccines are still working and working very well in preventing severe illness and hospitalization,” Johnson said.