Omicron cases are skyrocketing in NY. But COVID's death toll for 2021 offers key context
COVID-19 vaccines saved thousands of New Yorkers' lives in 2021, despite unforeseen spikes in infections caused by highly contagious coronavirus variants, according to a USA TODAY Network analysis.
While coronavirus mutations pushed COVID vaccines to the limit this year, the shots continued to do the most important job: Make the virus less deadly.
Indeed, New York has nearly 5,300 confirmed COVID-19 deaths since Aug. 1, despite the delta and omicron variants that sent infections skyrocketing, reaching about 50,000 new cases on Friday alone.
Each life lost triggered ripples of immeasurable sorrow for families of the departed, but the overall death toll this fall marked a drastic drop-off from the darkest pandemic days before vaccines arrived in late December 2020, federal data show.
For example, New York’s COVID deaths over the last five months were lower than January 2021 alone, when the state faced 5,785 COVID deaths amid a desperate push to get vaccines into arms of frontline workers and the frail and elderly New Yorkers most vulnerable to the respiratory disease.
Once vaccines reached most people ages 60 and above — a group accounting for roughly 90% of all COVID-19 deaths in New York throughout the pandemic — the virus effectively became less deadly earlier this year.
And now that early studies suggest the vaccines, especially with a booster shot, offered protection against omicron-related deaths, authorities seek to contrast the current infection spikes with prior surges, including the deadliest initial wave in spring 2020.
“I'll say this every day of the week in terms of whether we should be panicking; we're not panicking,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said recently, adding more than 95% of New York adults have at least one vaccine dose.
“It's not March of 2020. It's not even December of 2020. We have to keep this in context,” she added.
Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, who returned to public appearances Monday after contracting COVID-19 last week, expanded on the seemingly ever-evolving pandemic risk calculus.
“We’re a long way from the type of tsunami that was experienced,” Bassett said, referring to coronavirus infections that ravaged New York City in spring 2020.
“And we have no indication from the experience internationally that we’re going there,” she added, alluding to omicron's rapid rise and decline in other countries, such as South Africa.
“This is a highly contagious (omicron variant), but it’s clear at this point that it doesn’t cause a severe illness,” Bassett said.
The concern, however, remains omicron’s potential to sicken enough people to overwhelm New York’s health care system, which is currently strained due to worker shortages and burnout.
“The risk to our hospital system is simply the numbers,” Bassett said, referring to how some omicron cases lead to hospitalizations.
“If we have huge numbers of people infected, even a small fraction of the big number can be a big number,” she added.
More on omicron in New York:What we know about omicron breakthroughs
How vaccines saved lives in New York
As the New Year holiday weekend approaches, omicron’s rise has thrown gasoline on the smoldering embers of politically charged debate over COVID-19 vaccines.
Anti-vaccine groups have seized on growing numbers of breakthrough cases, or infections of fully vaccinated people, despite the fact vaccines have proven historically effective at curbing deaths related to a virus.
Meanwhile, the most important truth about COVID vaccines, in many ways, is reflected in the reduction in New York’s death toll this year, according to a review of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on the state's roughly 59,000 total confirmed deaths.
Among the findings:
- Overall this year, New York has roughly 21,200 deaths, which is down from nearly 38,000 deaths in 2020.
- Strikingly, many deaths came in April 2020, when nearly 22,000 New Yorkers died due to COVID-19. Those lives were lost as the novel coronavirus ravaged New York City, nearly overrunning its hospitals while doctors struggled to treat the respiratory disease.
- In May 2020, another 6,438 New Yorkers died due to COVID-19 complications.
- In other words, nearly half of the 59,000 overall confirmed COVID-19 deaths occurred during April and May 2020.
Further, new USA TODAY analysis shows the true death toll during the initial pandemic wave in 2020 is certainly much higher due to limited COVID-19 testing at the time, as well as systemic failures in tracking causes of death that led to undercounting nationally.
In New York, the death toll in communities outside New York City also underscored the importance of vaccinations.
In 2021, the statewide confirmed CDC death toll, excluding New York City, was roughly 11,000. That’s down from nearly 12,600 in 2020.
But the deaths this month have disproportionately impacted communities with lower vaccination rates in New York, as heavily vaccinated New York City accounted for just 324 of the nearly 1,374 deaths statewide.
In other words, the numbers suggested pockets of unvaccinated people in upstate fueled delta’s surge this fall and contributed to rises in deaths. It is a trend that hospital leaders repeatedly cited as most of the seriously ill COVID-19 patients filling intensive care units were unvaccinated New Yorkers.
In general, the overall decline this year in COVID-19 deaths in New York underscored prior research, including a Yale study that estimated the U.S. vaccination campaign saved about 279,000 lives nationally and prevented 1.25 million hospitalizations as of early July.
But the gains came despite costs linked to unvaccinated Americans, whom a recent analysis estimated fueled a total of 690,000 vaccine-preventable COVID-19 hospitalizations across the country from June through November 2021, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It estimated that the preventable costs of treating these patients was $13.8 billion during the six-month period.
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How omicron is impacting children
On Monday, Bassett also addressed concerns about rising pediatric hospitalizations linked to omicron’s rise in New York, citing a public health alert issued last week about the issue.
“The numbers that we gave on pediatric (hospital) admissions weren’t intended to make it seem that children were having an epidemic of infection,” she said during a media briefing in Albany.
“It really is to motivate pediatricians and families to seek the protection of vaccination,” she added, citing how just 27% of New York kids ages 5 to 11 have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose so far.
For the ages of 18 and younger, New York reported 184 hospitalizations linked to COVID-19 between Dec. 19 and 23, which is up from 70 during the week of Dec. 5 and 11, shortly after omicron was first identified, state data show.
But Bassett noted those numbers included children hospitalized due to a COVID-19 diagnosis, as well as those who tested positive after being admitted to the hospital for other reasons.
Further details were unavailable at this time, she said, calling the recent hospitalization numbers for children “small” despite the health alert.
Overall, New York has reported 37 COVID-19 deaths among children ages 19 and younger, state data show.
As of Dec. 16, almost 7.4 million children nationally have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics latest analysis.
At this time, it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is uncommon among children, the group noted.
However, there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects, the group added.
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