Why researchers say COVID boosters could save 60,000 lives

A team of researchers in New York, Connecticut and Toronto say there could be 210,000 COVID deaths in the coming months, many of which are preventable.

A team of researchers in New York, Connecticut and Toronto say there could be 210,000 COVID deaths in the coming months, many of which are preventable.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

There could be more than 210,000 COVID deaths in the United States in the coming months, and boosters could save as many as 60,000 lives, according to a team of researchers.

Dr. Eric Schneider, senior vice president for policy and research at The Commonwealth Fund, working with researchers from Yale University and the University of Toronto, has developed models showing the projected death toll from omicron nationwide.

“The model projects that about 210,000 people will die between now, January, and April in the absence of any change in the booster program,” Schneider said.

If, however, boosters administration increased dramatically, it would have a dramatic effect on both mortality and hospitalizations, according to Schneider’s model.

“Then we estimated what it would look like with doubling the rate, and it looks like about 40,000 deaths are averted,” he said. “If we tripled the rate to about 2.3 million booster vaccines delivered each day, we could reduce the death rate to six by 60,000 from the 210,000.”

Schneider said his models show hospitalizations from the omicron variant increasing through the end of the month.

“This omicron wave, the model projects, will cause about 1.7 million hospitalizations during January to February,” he said. “Most of those are going to occur in late January, early February. If we get double or triple the booster rate, tripling the rate would prevent 600,000 of those hospitalizations, which is really substantial when you think about what health care workers are going through right now.”

While increasing boosters “doesn't eliminate the problem,” Schneider said, “it certainly would help hospitals right now who are really crushed by this wave.”

An average of 497,236 people per day were boosted in the United States as of Jan. 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Connecticut, an average of 8,274 people per day received booster shots.

When vaccination rates were their highest in April 2021, an average of more than 3.5 million people were vaccinated every day in the United States, according to CDC data. In Connecticut, the average hit 51,000 vaccinations per day.

Schneider said data suggests increasing booster uptake three-fold is “actually an achievable target.”

Schneider and his colleagues began their research by going backward, looking at how higher vaccination rates would have helped previous COVID waves.

“We estimated that about 1.1 million COVID-19 deaths, and more than 10 million hospitalizations would have occurred during the first year if we have not had any vaccine program,” he said.

With delta, the effect of increased vaccination rates is even more significant, “Because at that point, most of the 60 percent or so of people who have been vaccinated in the U.S. had been vaccinated during the spring, and they still had sufficient immunity,” he said.

“We estimate that as many as 21,000 people a day could have died at the peak of the delta wave in the fall,” Schneider said. “That's, like, five times more than the 4,000 deaths a day that were at the peak in January of last year.”

While vaccine supply in the United States was a barrier when they were first approved, Schneider said there is now ample supply.

“I think what really is probably the biggest need right now is a very strong, consistent messaging campaign,” he said. “I know people have been very focused on testing in recent weeks. Testing is also important. But we have to do more than one thing. It sort of makes the messaging complicated. I would like to see a greater emphasis on booster vaccination because I think there's a large percentage of the population that would benefit.”

The goal, he said, should be to keep COVID deaths at annual flu levels, or lower. In 2018, there were 52,000 deaths from influenza in the United States, according to CDC data.

There were an average of 1,552 COVID deaths per day in the United States as of Jan. 9.

“So we're looking at 50,000 deaths a month,” Schneider said.

“If we could get COVID-19 deaths down to 20, 30,000 a year, that would be, I think, an accomplishment,” he said.