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Why COVID-19 Breakthrough Cases are Increasing in Pennsylvania

A larger share of fully vaccinated Pennsylvanians means a corresponding increase in breakthrough cases, state officials say

October 11, 2021

Three out of every four COVID-19 patients at Pennsylvania hospitals during the past month were unvaccinated, according to the latest available hospital data.

The data, released Friday from the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH), indicates that the available COVID-19 vaccines are continuing to protect patients from serious outcomes related to the virus, state officials said.

In its first hospital data release last month, the DOH reported about 95 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations were among unvaccinated individuals.

About 70 percent of Pennsylvania adults are fully vaccinated. The share of breakthrough cases and hospitalizations is expected to grow as fully vaccinated individuals begin to make up a larger majority of the state, said Dr. Denise Johnson, Pennsylvania’s acting physician general.

“As the number of people wearing seatbelts increased, the number of car accidents involving people wearing seatbelts went up. However, the overall fatality rate from car accidents dropped,” Dr. Johnson said.

She added: “Your chances of dying in a car accident drop dramatically if you wear a seatbelt. So too, your chances of dying from COVID-19 drop substantially if you are fully vaccinated.”

Among the highlights from the hospital-reported breakthrough data:

  • From January 1–October 4, 91 percent of cases and 93 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths were among unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated people
  • Cumulative death incidence among the unvaccinated and not fully vaccinated was six times higher than the death incidence among the fully vaccinated during the first nine months of the year
  • During the past month, 74 percent of the 4,989 hospitalizations due to COVID-19 were among unvaccinated Pennsylvanians

Health officials are continuing to monitor the hospital breakthrough data to evaluate the potential for waning immunity from the COVID-19 vaccine and the impact of the Delta variant. State health officials said the data is consistent with the national trends that led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control  and Prevention to recommend booster doses for certain at-risk groups.

This week, an advisory group for the FDA will evaluate the next steps for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 booster doses, as well as available research about mixing vaccine brands.

“What is completely clear to me is that vaccines are working as intended to help keep more people out of the hospital and alive after COVID-19,” Dr. Johnson said. “Because I know it can save their lives, I have encouraged all of my family, friends, and others to get vaccinated and, when they are eligible, to get a booster dose.”

HAP applauds Pennsylvania’s hospitals for their tireless work during the pandemic, as well as their commitment to help further the understanding about the efficacy of the available COVID-19 vaccines through their data reporting. Post-vaccination data from Pennsylvania’s hospitals now is posted online.

For more information, contact Robert Shipp III, PhD, BSN, RN, NEA-BC, HAP’s vice president, population health and clinical affairs.