Vaccines could have prevented nearly a quarter-million US COVID-19 deaths, study finds

By Mark Lynas

April 25, 2022

An estimated 234,000 COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented in the United States alone if the country’s entire adult population had accepted a full course of vaccinations, new research has concluded.

This avoidable death toll represents about a quarter of the nearly 1 million deaths that the US has experienced since the start of the pandemic. It suggests that anti-vaccine misinformation circulated by dis-informers on social media has had a devastating effect.

The analysis was published in the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, which provides non-partisan, updated information about the performance of the American health system.

The data originates from the Centers for Disease Control and Preventation, which tracks COVID deaths by vaccination status for 25 jurisdictions covering about 60 perecent of the US population. The study extrapolates a total death toll based on the changing share of vaccinated vs unvaccinated individuals as a proportion of the total number of COVID deaths.

The CDC states that the risk of dying from COVID-19 in February 2022 was 10 times higher for unvaccinated people compared to those vaccinated with a primary series, and 20 times higher than those fully vaccinated and with a booster.

While the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker does not directly attribute the avoidable 234,000 deaths to anti-vaccine misinformation, the efforts of anti-vaxxers clearly have had a devastating effect on efforts to save lives during the pandemic.

Last year the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) determined that just 12 anti-vaxxers are responsible for almost two-thirds of the anti-vaccine content circulating on social media. At number 1 was Joseph Mercola, who CCDH describes as “a successful anti-vaccine entrepreneur, peddling dietary supplements and false cures as alternative to vaccines.”

The list also included long-standing anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose Childrens Health Defense website hosts a range of anti-vaccine articles and other content by those opposing science and modern medicine, such as Vandana Shiva.

This latest analysis shows that these and other anti-vaccination campaigners are collectively responsible for at a minimum hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths. Despite this, the CCDH found recently that “superspreaders” of vaccine disinformation continue to produce content that is widely viewed across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

If the rough proportion of US unvaccinated avoidable deaths (about 60 percent of all COVID deaths) is extrapolated to the entire global death toll experienced since May 2021 (when vaccines became widely available in many countries), about 800,000 avoidable deaths may have been experienced worldwide.

Avoidable deaths aren’t the only toll of these disinformation campaigns. Unvaccinated people — especially children and those over age 65 — are also at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 compared to those who are vaccinated, placing an additional burden on the health care system.

Funeral home workers wear protective clothing to protect them from COVID-19 as they transport a dead body. Photo: Shutterstock/Giannis Papanikos