The share of COVID-19 deaths among those who are vaccinated has risen. In fall 2021, about 3 in 10 adults dying of COVID-19 were vaccinated or boosted. But by January 2022, as we showed in an analysis posted on the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, about 4 in 10 deaths were vaccinated or boosted. By April 2022, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data show that about 6 in 10 adults dying of COVID-19 were vaccinated or boosted, and that’s remained true through at least August 2022 (the most recent month of data).
The data from this chart come from the CDC, which collects data on the number of deaths by vaccination status from 30 health departments (including states and cities) across the country. In order to be counted as vaccinated, a person must be at least two weeks out from completing their primary series before testing positive (for example, at least 14 days after completing two doses of the mRNA vaccine). Similarly, to be counted as having a booster, a person must be at least two weeks out from their booster or additional dose before testing positive. People who were partially vaccinated are not included in this data.
In all jurisdictions, local health authorities review data to determine whether the death was associated with COVID-19 (through a review of vital records, cause of death, and/or other public health investigations or data sources), though methods vary by state or jurisdiction. Even with these reviews, it may sometimes be hard to determine the primary cause of death for someone with significant underlying health conditions, though these data are intended to be limited to cases where COVID-19 was a significant contributor to the death. From other data, we know there continue to be more overall deaths than there were before the pandemic (excess deaths). We focus our analysis here on adults. Fewer than 0.5% of COVID-19 deaths across all ages in 2022 have been among people under 25.
What explains the rising share of COVID-19 deaths among vaccinated people?
There are several factors at play here, including a rising share of the population that is vaccinated, waning immune protection and low uptake of boosters, and changes in immunity among the unvaccinated. New variants combined with a reduction in masking and other non-pharmaceutical interventions may also lead to more transmission, which can in turn lead to more deaths.
During the early rollout of vaccines, vaccinated people represented a small share of total deaths, but experts warned that the share would likely rise simply because vaccinated people were representing a growing share of the population. In other words, if 100% of people in the U.S. were vaccinated, vaccinated people would represent 100% of COVID-19 deaths. Similarly, as the share of the population with a booster rose somewhat during 2022, the share of deaths among boosted people also rose. COVID-19 vaccines are very effective at preventing severe illness and death, but they are not perfect, so deaths among vaccinated people will still occur.
Indeed, vaccinated people now make up the majority of the population – 79% of adults have completed at least the primary series – and the latest CDC data show that vaccinated people also now represent the majority of COVID-19 deaths. There are many more vaccinated people than there are unvaccinated people, and vaccinated and boosted people are, on average, older and more likely to have underlying health conditions that put them at risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes. That’s why, when CDC adjusts for some of these factors (age and population size), we still see that unvaccinated people are at much greater risk of death and other severe outcomes than people the same age who have stayed up-to-date on boosters. Older people are at greater risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19 than younger people, but vaccines and boosters still lower that risk substantially.