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New research suggests that early COVID-19 vaccination saved thousands of lives and may have prevented nearly 3 million cases in just the first 5 months of 2021. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • A new study estimates that vaccines prevented almost 140,000 deaths during the early months of 2021.
  • In addition, nearly 3 million cases may have been prevented.
  • Experts say that vaccines are our most reliable way to control the pandemic.
  • However, vaccination rates have declined.

A new study published in the journal Health Affairs estimates that by the second week of May 2021, the early COVID-19 vaccination campaign in the United States had prevented almost 140,000 deaths.

In addition, it may have prevented nearly 3 million cases of the disease.

While it had been expected that the vaccines would slow transmission of the virus and save lives, it was not certain just how much their rapid deployment would affect death rates.

This study aimed to assess the association between state-level vaccination rates and COVID-19 deaths during the first 5 months that the vaccines were available.

To study the link between vaccination rates and COVID-19 deaths, a group of researchers from RAND and Indiana University created models to estimate how many deaths would have occurred without vaccinations.

Sumedha Gupta, the first author of the study and an economist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said she and her team estimated the COVID-19 illnesses and deaths reductions by conducting a “natural experiment.”

States with high vaccination rates were the treatment group, while states with low vaccination rates were the control group.

Data from the Bloomberg COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker was used to determine how many vaccine doses had been given in each state.

Death data came from The New York Times’ Coronavirus (COVID-19) Data in the United States database.

The study included the time period of Dec. 21, 2020, to May 9, 2021. As of May 9, researchers found that COVID-19 vaccination had prevented 139,393 deaths.

Gupta said they also found that the associated deaths varied quite a bit from state to state.

For example, in New York, vaccinations led to an estimated 11.7 fewer COVID-19 deaths per 10,000 people.

In Hawaii, however, the reduction was only an estimated 1.1 fewer deaths per 10,000 people.

On average, states experienced a reduction of 5 deaths per 10,000 people. There was also variation in how quickly each state progressed in getting people vaccinated.

Alaska was the leader, reaching 20 doses per 100 adults on Jan. 29. Alabama was last to reach this milestone, not getting there until Feb. 21.

California was the first state to reach 120 doses per 100 adults, but many states have not passed this mark.

Gupta said the economic value of the lives saved during the study period amounts to between $625 billion and $1.4 trillion.

Dr. Tyler Evans, the co-founder of Wellness & Equity Alliance, who was not associated with the study, noted that there were several limitations in the study, such as variability between communities and the fact that natural immunity was not factored in.

However, Evans said vaccines “definitely” prevent hospitalizations and save lives, even against the Delta variant.

“Thus far, vaccinations remain the most reliable means to check the pandemic,” said Gupta. “Yet, vaccination rates have significantly reduced, even in states where a large share of the population remains unvaccinated.”

Gupta said there are real concerns about low vaccination rates since they are at continued risk for COVID-19 surges and variants.

She noted that it is of “paramount importance” for scientists to get the word out about how state vaccination drives have benefited the population to bring the pandemic under control.

Evans seconded this idea, saying that “state vaccine programs that are more aggressive save lives and money.”

“Just how many remains to be seen,” added Evans, “but studies like Gupta et al. should continue to explore these avenues and help scientists, medical practitioners, and the general public to better understand the role of vaccinations in not only preventing illness and hospitalization but in helping to slow down the spread of the virus once and for all.”