What percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated to usefully reduce the risk of dying from COVID-19?
We’re going to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to estimate the answer to that question using Arizona’s high quality COVID data in general, and the state’s data for COVID-related hospital admissions and deaths in particular.
We’re also going to build off our previous analysis that synchronized Arizona’s figures for the number of positive COVID infection test results, hospitalizations, and deaths according to the approximate date of initial SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus exposure for the Arizonans who became infected and experienced these pandemic-related events. The following chart shows these three streams of data using a logarithmic scale, covering the period from 15 March 2020 through 30 April 2021.
We’ve annotated the chart to indicate two periods of “noise” in the data for deaths, which came into play when the daily number of COVID-related deaths of Arizonans dropped into the single digits. Because of the small numbers involved, having a relatively small change in the daily number can have an outsize effect on the appearance of the overall trend, which accounts for the “noisy” short-term trough that was recorded in mid-September 2020 and the short-term spike in late March 2021. We’ve added the dotted lines to these areas of the chart to indicate what the overall pattern would look like without the short term noise in the data.
Now to the bigger question. We’re going to focus on the ratio of deaths to hospital admissions because these events represent the most serious classes of COVID infections. In Arizona, 75% of COVID-related deaths have occurred among the state’s senior population, Age 65 or older. This same demographic has accounted for 46% of COVID-related hospital admissions in the state.
These figures confirm seniors are disproportionately vulnerable to both these outcomes if they become infected by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. This fact is why this portion of the state’s population was targeted for early COVID vaccinations once the vaccines became available.
Because the incidence of COVID-related deaths in concentrated in Arizona’s senior population, we should see a sustained decline in the ratio of COVID deaths to hospital admissions corresponding to roughly when the population Age 65 or older achieved effective herd immunity. We can then identify what percentage of the state’s elderly population had been received at least one vaccine dose at that point in time, which in turn, will give us a reasonable indication of what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated for COVID to reduce its risk of death.
The next chart graphically shows the results when we combine these points of data together.
We find at least 55% of the population would need to have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccines to provide the benefit of reduced risk of death from becoming infected by the coronavirus. That’s the percentage of the Age 65 and older population of Arizonans who had been vaccinated as of 28 February 2021, which marks the point in time at which COVID-related deaths in the state began to plunge as a result of the Operation Warp Speed vaccination programs.
That’s the low end for our estimate, because it does not consider the portion of the senior population who would have obtained natural immunity from having become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and who recovered from it. As of 28 February 2021, Arizona’s senior population accounted for 109,897 known COVID infections, about 13.4% of the state’s total at that time. Added to the 696,559 Age 65 or older Arizonans who had received at least one COVID vaccination dose at that date would put the high end of the estimate at 64%.
That upper level figure would explain why public health officials have set a target of 70% of the population for COVID vaccinations, but it seems strange they are not giving more weight to the potential contribution of natural immunity in achieving that goal. If they did, they could focus their limited resources for providing COVID vaccination more effectively.
Looking at Arizona’s data, we would say the magic percentage for vaccinations to achieve useful COVID herd immunity is somewhere between 55% and 64% of the population. That’s because there is almost certainly a good amount of overlap between those who have recovered from COVID and those who have been vaccinated. It would be more beneficial and less wasteful for public health officials to target the COVID vaccines to those who have not developed any antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infections.
Arizona Department of Health Services. COVID-19 Data Dashboard: Vaccine Administration. [Online Database]. Accessed 10 June 2021.
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