Israelis over 60 who are either unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated against COVID-19 died in significantly higher numbers last month compared to people in their age cohort who are fully vaccinated, according to official figures published by the Israeli Health Ministry.
The numbers show that while only approximately 12 percent of Israelis over 60 are either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, together they account for 43 percent of COVID deaths in their age group in the previous month.
These numbers highlight once again the stark contrast between the vaccinated and unvaccinated as Israel grapples with the fifth wave of a pandemic that has killed more than 9,000 people since March 2020.
Throughout the previous waves as well, vaccination status emerged as a key factor in determining one’s chances of suffering a severe infection or dying as a result of the virus.
Prof. Itamar Grotto, a former deputy director general of the Health Ministry, told Haaretz that “the chances of death could be 10 to 20 times more for the unvaccinated if you calculate it.”
Grotto added that “we’re seeing an increase in the number of COVID deaths in Israel since the beginning of January. On January 4, the seven-day average number of COVID deaths per day was four, but on February 2 it’s 39 – almost 10 times higher.”
He explained that “this death toll is partially related to the delta variant, but many cases are related to omicron. This means that although the omicron variant is milder, it is still causing a lot of illness and death due to its rapid spread.”
Grotto explained that the reason omicron is often milder is “at least partially” related to vaccination among the over 60s. According to ministry figures, on January 31 the death rate per 100,000 people for the over 60s stood at 16.3 for unvaccinated individuals, as opposed to 0.9 for the fully vaccinated.
Official figures for the period of January 4 to February 1 showed that the average daily death rate per 100,000 people stood at zero for those under the age of 60. On January 29, ministry figures showed the death rate per 100,000 people under 60 to be 0.1 for the unvaccinated, 0.2 for the partially vaccinated and zero for the fully vaccinated.
Over the past month, 679 people died from COVID in Israel. However, the higher death rate does not mean the vaccine is less effective than in previous waves, said Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians. He noted that differences in variants, vaccination rates and other factors make wave-to-wave comparisons difficult.
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“The vaccine is effective against severe illness and death, but it’s not 100-percent bulletproof. And unfortunately, we do see that effectiveness against infection for omicron is very weak,” he said. He added that there is also a clear variation in death rates between groups with lower and higher socioeconomic status.
“Clearly, the infection rates are rocketing,” Levine continued. “According to estimates, the infection rate is actually much higher because you can’t test everyone. So, it’s a widespread epidemic and, as we feared, once there’s such a high number of infections, even if the death rate is relatively low you still get many fatalities – and that’s clearly one of the issues.
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“We couldn’t do much more to prevent transmission, but we could protect the most vulnerable better – we didn’t do well enough,” he observed.
Part of the difficulty in parsing the current death rate is the unavailability of data regarding those who died solely because of COVID and those who had other causes while infected. There is also a lack of information regarding the split between omicron and delta cases among the deceased.