WASHINGTON (AP) – COVID-19 hospitalizations among elderly Americans have fallen by more than 70% since the start of the year, and deaths among them also appear to have fallen, dramatic proof that the vaccination campaign is working.
Now the trick is to get more of the nation’s young people to roll up their sleeves.
The decline in severe cases among Americans 65 and older is particularly encouraging as older people have caused about 8 in 10 deaths from the virus since it struck the United States, where the toll s ‘amounts to around 570,000.
Deaths from COVID-19 among people of all ages in the United States have dropped to about 700 per day on average, from a peak of over 3,400 in mid-January.
“What you see there is exactly what we hoped for and wanted to see: as vaccination rates are very high, hospitalizations and death rates are going down,” said Jodie Guest, public health researcher at Emory University.
The best available data suggests deaths from COVID-19 among Americans 65 and older have declined by more than 50% since their peak in January. The picture is not entirely clear because the most recent data on age-specific deaths from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is incomplete and subject to revision.
Still, the numbers suggest that the drop in deaths among the elderly is leading to the overall drop in lives lost to COVID-19, justifying the US strategy of placing the elderly on the front line or near the vaccine queue when the vaccine became available in the winter.
US trends mirror what is happening in other countries with high vaccination rates, such as Israel and Britain, and contrast sharply with the worsening disaster in places like India and Brazil, which are far behind in vaccine distribution.
According to US government statistics, hospitalizations are down more than 50%, but most dramatically among the elderly, who have been eligible for vaccines the longest and have received them enthusiastically.
Two-thirds of American seniors are fully vaccinated, compared to only one-third of all American adults. Over 80% of older people have received at least one injection, compared to just over 50% of all adults.
At the same time, however, overall demand for vaccines in the United States appears to be declining, even though injections have been launched to all adults in the country. The average number of doses administered per day appears to drop in mid-April from 3.2 million to 2.9 million, according to CDC figures.
“My concern is whether the use of the vaccine will be as strong in these younger age groups,” Guest said. “If not, we won’t see the positive impact of vaccines in those younger age groups than we have seen in our older population.”
What’s more, new cases of the virus in the United States have been stranded at worrying levels since March, averaging over 60,000 a day, which matches the numbers seen during last summer’s surge. New cases are increasingly affecting people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, who also account for a larger share of hospitalizations.
In Michigan, which has been hit by a recent spike in infections, hospitalizations for people in their 50s have increased 700% since late February, surpassing all other age groups.
In Seattle’s King County, hospital doctors are seeing fewer patients with COVID-19 overall, requiring less intensive care, and requiring less breathing apparatus. These younger patients are also more likely to survive.
“Fortunately, they’ve done very well,” said Dr. Mark Sullivan, an intensive care physician at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. “They tend to recover a little faster because of their youth.”
With enough people vaccinated, COVID-19 cases should eventually start to drop as the virus finds fewer and fewer people to infect. Guest and other experts say Israel appeared to hit that threshold last month after fully immunizing around 40% of its population of 9 million people.
But the United States faces challenges in conducting mass vaccinations due to its size, diversity, geography, and much larger health disparities.
President Joe Biden announced new federal funding for small businesses on Tuesday so employees can take paid time off to get vaccinated or recover from vaccine side effects.
The challenge will be to quickly vaccinate young Americans, who feel less vulnerable to the coronavirus but are mainly those who spread the disease.
“To really feel like we’ve come out of the woods, we have to see a lot fewer cases than we’re seeing now,” said Dr Jesse Goodman, a vaccine specialist at Georgetown University. “This will require a larger and more continuous effort.”
In Chicago’s Cook County, where 91% of adults 65 and older have received at least one vaccine, patients hospitalized these days are younger and doing better.
“That sense of dread is definitely alleviated when older patients get vaccinated,” said Dr. Tipu Puri, kidney specialist and deputy chief medical officer of clinical operations at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
At times, there is even joy, he says. He recently stopped by to help an elderly couple find the hospital’s vaccination clinic. The wife was pushing her husband’s wheelchair.
“These are the people you hope you won’t see in the hospital,” Puri said. “We don’t go to see them in the emergency room or intensive care.”
He added: “This is what the exit from the pandemic looks like.”
Tom Murphy, editor of AP Health, contributed to this story from Indianapolis. Johnson reported from Seattle.
Follow Matthew Perrone on Twitter: @AP_FDAwriter
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.