Over the past month, 26% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Pennsylvania were vaccinated individuals, according to a recent state health department report.
“Since a lot more people are vaccinated, we see more cases in vaccinated individuals, as expected,” Pennsylvania Acting Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson said during a press conference Friday.
Johnson added, “But the great news is that the vaccines are still working, and work very well.”
Of the three hospitals in Lancaster County, only Lancaster General Hospital tracks breakthrough infections.
The percentage of breakthrough hospitalizations at LG Health have risen sharply over the past month, hitting nearly 30% at one point. On Monday 16% of COVID-19 patients were fully vaccinated, according to the health system’s online dashboard.
“Of the small number that are vaccinated and admitted to the hospital, many of these patients are older in age and/or have medical conditions that compromise the ability of their immune systems to fight off infection,” an LG Health spokesperson said in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline.
A COVID-19 breakthrough, or post-vaccination case, is defined as a fully vaccinated individual who tests positive two weeks after completing a single- or two-dose regimen.
Monitoring breakthrough cases is important for tracking the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, which appear to show waning effectiveness after six months. An increase, the report noted, could “be a signal of reduced protection against a variant.”
State health officials only recently began collecting data on breakthrough cases after Republican lawmakers requested the data.
Released Friday, the report only examined whether hospitalized patients were vaccinated or not. It does not assess whether these breakthrough cases were among those vaccinated more than six months ago.
“We have not had the time and resources to analyze the breakthrough data based on vaccine type,” Barry Ciccocioppo, a state health spokesperson, said in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline. “To this point we have not been able to review beyond fully vaccinated vs not fully vaccinated in terms of breakthroughs.”
Friday’s report marks the second on post-vaccination cases.
Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam ordered hospitals to report breakthrough infections on Aug. 13. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been tracking breakthrough cases nationally for months.
A mistake to draw conclusions
The latest report examined breakthrough cases from Sept. 7 through Oct. 4.
Among the findings:
- 74% of the nearly 5,000 hospitalizations over the past month were among unvaccinated Pennsylvanians.
- 518 of the 7,625 COVID-19 fatalities in 2021 were among the vaccinated, or 7%.
- 69,822 infections, or 9%, of more than 770,000 positive cases this year have been identified as a breakthrough case.
Dr. John D. Goldman, a UPMC infectious diseases specialist, cautioned against putting too much stock in the numbers.
“It’s a mistake to just look at what percentage is hospitalized with COVID and vaccinated and draw conclusions on how well the vaccines are working,” Goldman said in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline.
Goldman echoed what others have said of COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness, as greater numbers of vaccinated individuals have become hospitalized.
“If you are vaccinated and you get sick, your illness course will be better off than if you were not vaccinated,” Goldman said. “What the vaccine does is help prepare the body to respond to the virus.”
On Monday, LNP | LancasterOnline asked officials at the county’s four health systems whether the breakthrough cases they are seeing were among those vaccinated more than six months ago. None answered this question.
WellSpan Health declined to comment, while Penn State Health did not respond.
Penn State does track breakthrough cases, but does not have a hospital in Lancaster County.
Pennsylvania health officials released their first report on breakthrough cases, hospitalizations and deaths last month.
That report found 95% of the hospitalizations from Jan. 1 through Sept. 7 were among the unvaccinated. With health care workers receiving the first vaccinations in Pennsylvania in mid-December, no one would have been fully vaccinated on Jan. 1.
The stats represent data from 62% of all hospitals, a roughly 7% participation increase since the state released its inaugural report on Sept. 14.