The CDC says vaccine protection is tumbling for older Americans, though they still work very well for younger people

·4 min read
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky speaks.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald
  • The CDC released new data Friday suggesting that elderly adults don't have the same protection against hospitalization as others.

  • According to one study, vaccine effectiveness against hospitalization is only 75% among adults 75+, while it is 90% in under 75s.

  • The reports, taken together, provide a compelling case for booster shots for older Americans.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

US health officials are releasing new data that suggests older adults should start lining up for booster shots in just a matter of weeks.

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared two new data sets showing that the immunity people over age 65 got from their initial COVID-19 vaccines is possibly starting to wane.

The drop offs are most stark in people aged 75 and up, who, according to one CDC report, are increasingly at risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19, even when fully vaccinated.

Taken together, the reports suggest that the vaccines are still doing very well at their primary job of keeping people under the age of 65 alive and out of the hospital - but for older people vaccine protection is not as strong.

The reports provide an argument for offering boosters to older Americans soon. They also suggest that, although more than 80% of adults over 65 are already fully vaccinated, that may not be enough to protect them from severe disease.

The reports studied how well vaccines prevent severe disease and hospitalization

The first report tracked 1,175 veterans hospitalized at five different VA medical centers across the country, taking into account their age and vaccination status.

The study only included veterans who'd been fully vaccinated with two shots of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, excluding anyone who mixed brands, or who got Johnson & Johnson's vaccine.

Almost all of these study participants (93%) were men (most veterans are), but the veterans were also "older, more racially diverse," and had higher prevalence of underlying medical conditions than the general US population, CDC study authors wrote. This makes veterans an important group to study, as they may be some of the most vulnerable vaccinated patients.

Encouragingly, the study found that even among veterans, vaccine protection against hospitalization remained high (at 95%) for those fully vaccinated under age 65 - even with the Delta variant dominating over the summer, causing some mild infections in the vaccinated.

In veterans over age 65, however, vaccine protection against hospitalization was much lower (around 80%), suggesting older adults are not as well protected from infection as others with two shots on board.

The second study measured how well all three US-authorized vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J) protect people from being hospitalized with COVID-19, taking a look at more than 32,000 hospital and ER visits across nine US states over the summer.

The data from that study suggests that the vaccines are about 86% effective against hospitalization overall, but that figure drops to 76% among adults who are 75 or older.

When people over 75 years old were left out of the equation, vaccines were nearly 90% effective at preventing hospitalization.

These kind of vaccine efficacy drops in older adults had not been seen as much in earlier studies, conducted before Delta took over.

It's tough to know for sure what's driving the decline. It could be that vaccine immunity is waning for older adults, who were vaccinated earlier during the initial rollout. But it's also possible that the Delta variant is making vaccine efficacy lower in this group. The decline could be due to "a combination of factors," the CDC report authors said.

"It actually may be very difficult for us to disentangle time since vaccination and the impact of the Delta variant, especially in some populations that we know were vaccinated earlier," the CDC's Sarah Oliver said during a meeting of independent vaccine advisors, on August 30.

An argument for older people to get boosters

biden second shot
President-elect Joe Biden received his second dose COVID-19 vaccine shot in Newark, Delaware on January 11, 2021. Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Last month, the White House said everyone will be eligible for boosters at eight months post-vaccination, with initial booster shots rolling out to older adults and healthcare workers in late September. President Biden said on Thursday that "as soon as they are authorized, those eligible will be able to get a booster right away, in tens of thousands of sites across the country."

But official decisions on when and who to boost must come from the US Food and Drug Administration, as well as the CDC.

So far, they've only recommended boosters for immunocompromised people in the US, calling for more data to support boosting, say, older Americans.

The two new reports out today suggest older adults could use another shot soon. Older people generally do not mount a robust response to vaccines of all kinds, because their immune systems are not as strong.

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