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Three weeks after Israel started giving second doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to the first eligible population group, data watchers are starting to see a hopeful sign: decreasing deaths from COVID-19 in the targeted age group.
Cases, hospitalizations, and critical illness have also decreased among people aged 60 years and older, which is the group that was prioritized to receive vaccinations first, said Eran Segal, PhD, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, in an interview for an upcoming episode of Medscape’s Medicine and the Machine podcast. The vaccination benefit is “striking” and bolsters confidence in the potency of mRNA vaccines against the B117 strain of SARS-CoV-2, which is dominant in Israel, tweeted Eric Topol, MD, Medscape’s editor-in-chief and co-host of the podcast with Abraham Verghese, MD.
Since Israel’s latest peak in mid-January, cases among people aged 60 years and older have declined by 55%; hospitalizations have declined by 40%; critical illnesses, by 35%; and deaths, by 35%, Segal said. The same trends are not present for people younger than 60, who began to be vaccinated later.
Even with these positive trends, the pandemic is still far from over in Israel. New weekly cases affect more than 0.5% of the population, Segal said, “a big number.”
Moreover, he estimates that the B.117 variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, now accounts for 80% to 90% of all cases.
About 10% of people older than 60 haven’t been vaccinated yet, Segal says, and progress has stalled over the past 4 to 5 weeks.
The number of severely ill people in intensive care also remains high, at around 1200 patients. The Israeli Ministry of Health had previously set the threshold for the number of severely ill patients above which hospitals could no longer provide adequate treatment at 800 patients. During the interview, Segal told Topol and Verghese that the high number of patients is compromising patient survival.
In research posted to the preprint server medRxiv.org in January, Segal and colleagues reported that care may have been inadequate even during periods in which the number of severely ill patients was not as high as the 800-patient threshold. In-hospital mortality rates were about 25% higher during periods in which there were more than 500 severely ill patients, compared with periods when there were fewer than 500 patients in intensive care units. They determined that the higher mortality rate could not be attributed to changes in the patient population.
“COVID mortalities could have been saved if these same people, given their age, given their status at hospitalization, were to come during periods of lower load on the hospitals,” Segal said. “That really took a death toll.”
His group believes that in the current period of strain, mortality rates have been 30% higher. “This is now a lot of lives that really could have been saved in different times, just the hospitals are beyond capacity,” he said.
The full interview with Segal will be posted next week.