More Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine than have tested positive for the virus, an early but hopeful milestone in the race to end the pandemic.
As of Monday afternoon, 26.5 million Americans had received one or both doses of the current vaccines, according to data gathered by the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker. Since the first U.S. patient tested positive outside of Seattle a year ago, 26.2 million people in the country have tested positive for the disease, and 441,000 have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. has been administering shots at a faster daily rate than any country in the world, giving about 1.35 million doses a day, according to data gathered by Bloomberg. While the rollout stumbled in its early days, in the six weeks since the first shots went into arms, almost 7.8% of Americans have gotten one or more doses, and 1.8% are fully vaccinated.
"It's worth noting that today, for the first time, the data said that more people were vaccinated than were reported as newly diagnosed cases," said Paula Cannon, a professor of microbiology at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine. "That's worth celebrating. I'm all for that win."
Only a few other countries have crossed that milestone: Israel, the U.K., and the U.A.E. beat the U.S. to the more-vaccinations-than-cases line days or weeks ago.
After a holiday surge in American cases, officials at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention are calling the top, though that is likely because of behavioral changes, and still not widespread impact from the vaccine. New COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and emergency-department visits are starting to decline, said Jay Butler, the agency's deputy director for infectious diseases.
"While these trends are encouraging, I want to stress that the numbers nationally are still high, and they're as high as they've been at any point in the pandemic up to this point," he said at a briefing Friday hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "If this pandemic were a stock, we might be wanting to sell."
It is still possible for the virus to roar back, particularly if variants that are emerging in South Africa and elsewhere take hold. Studies suggest vaccines, particularly the newer shots from Johnson & Johnson and Novavax Inc., are less potent against that strain and at least one other.
The goal is to eventually reach herd immunity, when so many Americans have protection thanks to a vaccine or natural infection the virus struggles to spread and eventually dies out. Public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease doctor, estimate 70% to 85% of the 330 million Americans must be exposed to the pathogen through virus or vaccine to reach that level.
While past infection can create immunity, it is not clear how long it lasts. And it comes at a cost – not just deaths but hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and some who report lingering illness and a baffling array of symptoms, including fatigue, depression, and respiratory issues.
"There's a price to pay in suffering and in cost for the health system," said Alessandro Sette, a professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "It's protracted and severe."
No deaths, meanwhile, have been conclusively linked to the receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's voluntary system for tracking adverse events includes reports of about 290 deaths following the administration of a vaccine against coronavirus as of Jan. 22. Most were in elderly people with other health issues and none were determined to be tied to the immunizations.
Questions persist. It is still not clear exactly how many people have been vaccinated or infected, and it might never be. Many more people have had the virus than tested positive, in particular those with mild or asymptomatic cases.
Reported vaccinations are also lower than the number actually given because people are more focused on injecting them into arms than recording the data into tracking systems, Cannon said. Two shots are required for full immunity, which only 5.82 million Americans have received.
It is still early in the immunization effort, which has been beset by a lack of coordination, confusion over who should have access and a shortfall in supply that crimped the number of people who were able to get the shot in the first weeks of the rollout.
It is also important to make sure the right people are getting immunized in order to get the most benefit, said Bill Moss, executive director of Johns Hopkins University's International Vaccine Access Center.
"There are a lot of people who are getting vaccinated who aren't in high-risk categories," he said. "If that's the case, it's going to take longer to see a reduction in serious disease and death. Everyone needs a vaccine at some point, but I'm concerned about the inequities in how the system has rolled out."
The emerging variants have created new urgency to increase the pace of vaccinations, said Daniela Weiskopf, a research assistant professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology. Each time the virus replicates, there is a chance a variant could emerge.
"The faster we interrupt this, the more likely we're not seeing more variants pop up," she said.
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