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Experts say vaccination remains the best protection against serious COVID-19 disease. FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images
  • Data shows the number of COVID-19 deaths among vaccinated people is rising.
  • Experts note that the rate is lower among people who have received booster shots.
  • They say this highlights the importance of getting boosters, especially for people at higher risk.
  • They note that unvaccinated people are still at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illnesses.

To boost or not to boost?

That question is becoming more pertinent as deaths among vaccinated adults in the United States are climbing while too few at-risk Americans have received potentially life-saving booster shots.

CNN reports that 4 in 10 deaths from COVID-19 were among vaccinated people during the Omicron surge in January and February 2022.

However, experts say an increase in deaths among vaccinated Americans is to be expected as a greater percentage of the population is vaccinated.

They add that being unvaccinated still greatly increases your risk of getting a serious case of COVID-19.

“Context is crucial,” Peter Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner as well as a professor at the University of Paris School of Medicine and president at the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, told Healthline. “Our key public health imperative must be to get the Americans who are not yet vaccinated to roll up their sleeves and get protected against infection, serious symptoms, hospitalization, and death.”

Initial vaccine doses are indeed important, but there appears to be a growing need for booster shots.

Vaccinated adults who had not received a booster shot were twice as likely to die in January and February 2022 as those who had gotten a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (the fourth shot was not yet available at the time), according to data from the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker.

That’s partly because the Omicron variant is the most vaccine-evasive yet. The initial series of vaccines provide only limited protection against infection and less robust protection against hospitalization and death than they did against previous variants.

During the height of Omicron, KFF data estimated that without a booster, the initial vaccine series was only 79 percent effective at preventing death.

However, with a booster, that figure rises to 94 percent, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, only 69 percent of people over 65 have received booster shots nationwide. In some places such as Florida, Arizona, and Nevada, only around 55 percent of adults 65 and older have received a third or fourth dose, The Hill reported.

“Booster shots are essential based on longevity of effectiveness,” Dr. Cindy M. Duke, the founder and laboratory director of the Nevada Fertility Institute and a clinical assistant professor at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, told Healthline. “Once one receives their first booster, it serves as an overlap of protection as the first and second doses lose their efficacy over time. Think of it as a renewal of protection against the virus.”

The benefit of booster shots seems clear, so how do we get more vaccines into peoples’ arms, especially those in the highest risk groups?

The problem is both social and psychological, suggests Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

“As the COVID pandemic lingers into the third year, there seem to be two different perspectives on this cataclysmic event,” Cutler told Healthline. “Many view the threat as past, worldwide deaths are declining, and it’s time to get back to the normal life we had before COVID existed. Others mourn over a million dead in the USA, [about] 300 still dying every day, surging numbers of infections, and the prospect of still more new variants.’

“Given these two very different views of the threat,” Cutler explained, “it is no wonder that there are different views on the value of booster vaccines.”

“The value of booster vaccines in reducing deaths and infections is unquestioned, but for those who see the risk of death as low; the omicron infections as mild; and have an exaggerated perception of the risk from vaccines, the benefit of the boosters may not justify any perceived risk,” he added.

To change that, we need coordination between the government and health systems nationwide to get the word out.

“Education. Education. Education. There have been no targeted communications efforts designed and directed to older Americans to date,” Pitts said. “This must change. We must find ways to convince unvaccinated older Americans to get their initial jabs and those already vaccinated to get boosted. The way to reduce hospitalizations and deaths is to increase the protection of at-risk communities.”