The higher the vaccination rate, the lower the death rate: How Illinois is proving it
Before COVID-19 vaccines became available in late 2020, the virus had claimed 145 of every 100,000 Illinois residents.
That was the 11th highest mortality rate for COVID-19 among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in 2020.
In 2021, after the vaccines had been introduced and made widely available, Illinois recorded the 17th lowest per capita mortality rate in the country, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus killed 102 of every 100,000 residents here.
In fact, CDC data show states with higher rates of fully vaccinated residents have significantly lower COVID-19 per capita mortality rates.
"It clearly shows your likelihood of dying from COVID-19 is much lower if you're vaccinated," said Dr. Emily Landon, head of the University of Chicago's infectious disease prevention and control program. "Vaccines save people's lives."
Only one of the 14 states with the highest COVID-19 per capita mortality rate in 2021 has a vaccination rate above 58%, according to CDC data.
In Vermont, where the CDC Thursday was reporting 77.8% of the population is fully vaccinated for the highest such proportion in the nation, 47 of every 100,000 residents died of COVID-19 in 2021.
That's compared to West Virginia, with 55.3% of the population fully vaccinated. There, 225 of every 100,000 residents died from the virus last year, according to CDC data. That was the highest per capita COVID-19 mortality rate in the nation last year.
As of Thursday, 64.5% of Illinois residents were fully vaccinated, CDC records show.
Public health officials and medical experts note that vaccinations alone are not the only factor in determining a state's COVID-19 mortality rate. Health care access plays a significant role in medical outcomes as well. Geography plays a large role, too. That's why the per capita death rates and vaccinations don't sync up exactly, they explained.
"But it stands to reason that the more people that are vaccinated, the fewer infections there will be, and with fewer infections there will be fewer hospitalizations, which then means fewer deaths," said Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, medical director of infection control and prevention at Edward Hospital in Naperville.
Idaho has the lowest level of fully vaccinated residents at just 46.4%, according to CDC records. Last year, the virus killed 147 of every 100,000 Idaho residents, a lower rate than 21 other states. But that's still almost twice as high as the state's 2020 per capita mortality rate from the virus.
Almost all the states with higher than average vaccination rates saw their COVID-19 per capita mortality rate decline in 2021, as in Illinois.
Landon said he also believes people are more apt to get vaccinated if they know more people who are, too.
"Everybody is more likely to do stuff because more people around them have gotten their shot," she said. "People are influenced by what their friends and neighbors are doing, and you can really save someone's life who hasn't been vaccinated just by talking about your experience with them."
With the recent surge in cases due to the omicron variant, it's more important than ever to get vaccinated, medical experts said.
"If you're fully vaccinated, your chances of dying from COVID are 20 times lower than someone unvaccinated," Pinsky said. "And because omicron is so transmissible, we're seeing a lot of reinfections and breakthroughs, but they're not as severe as those who are unvaccinated."
Landon echoed that sentiment and added that boosters are important to stave off severe symptoms as well.
"Omicron doesn't care how much vaccine you've gotten in terms of getting infected," she said. "But your body cares a lot if you've been vaccinated."
Pinsky said that on any given day, 80% to 90% of Edward Hospital's COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated or just partially vaccinated.
"When I ask why they didn't get vaccinated, most of them say they underestimated COVID and didn't think it would be so severe," he said. "It's very rare to still have patients not acknowledge it's a good idea to get vaccinated."
Last week, Illinois recorded the most COVID-19 hospitalizations ever in the pandemic and set another single-day new case record.
Still, thousands have yet to get vaccinated throughout the state.
"On an individual level, you might get lucky if you're not vaccinated, but at this point it's really like playing Russian roulette," Landon said.