COVID vaccines have prevented 2.3M deaths, 17M hospitalizations, $900M in spending through March, report finds

COVID-19 vaccinations have blunted the worst waves of the pandemic, preventing millions of deaths, limiting strain on the U.S. healthcare system and producing “substantial cost savings” in healthcare spending, according to new estimates published Friday by the Commonwealth Fund.

From the first authorizations in December 2020 through March 2022, COVID-19 vaccination was estimated to have averted roughly 2.3 million deaths and 66.2 million additional infections, per the analysis.

Further, the push for shots in arms was found to have prevented 17 million hospitalizations in the U.S. and saved the country’s healthcare system just shy of $900 million in total spending, notwithstanding the country’s savings related to workplace absences and deaths.

“The success of the vaccination program in preventing deaths and hospitalizations is obscured somewhat by the nearly 1 million COVID-19 deaths that have occurred since the start of the pandemic,” authors from the National Committee for Quality Assurance, the Commonwealth Fund, Yale School of Public Health and York University wrote.

“As Congress considers the costs and benefits of extending COVID-19 vaccination, our results show that continuing to vaccinate and boost Americans can produce substantial health benefits and financial returns to the country,” they wrote.

The group’s analysis was an update on its December report, which found that vaccination through the delta wave had blocked 1.1 million additional deaths and 10.3 million hospitalizations as of November.

Now taking the sharper omicron wave into account, the group’s analysis estimates that daily deaths during omicron’s peak would have been roughly nine times higher than what the country experienced. Daily hospitalizations would have been around 10 times higher during a time when hospitals were already reaching ICU capacity and limiting their services.

“During the delta wave, hospitalizations would have peaked at more than 48 per 100,000 population; during the omicron wave, they would have peaked at 85 per 100,000 population, exceeding the hospitalization rate attributable to influenza during an entire severe flu season,” the authors wrote.

To conduct the analysis, the group expanded on a previous data model that took national population demographics, cases, hospitalizations, deaths, daily vaccinations, vaccine effectiveness and waning immunity against the original SARS-CoV-2 strain and four variants into account. They used this model to simulate a pandemic scenario of no vaccinations, and calculated the direct healthcare costs of COVID-19 illnesses and hospitalizations in both circumstances.

The $900 million in prevented healthcare savings to-date represents roughly one-fifth of the country’s annual health expenditures, the authors noted, somewhat softening the pricey investments into national vaccination programs and strengthening the case for additional funding.

The vaccination effort has flagged in recent weeks with daily vaccinations at their lowest rate since early 2021, the researchers noted. Waning immunity, the ongoing spread of the BA.2 subvariant and the potential for new variants make a new vaccine uptake push “critical to avert outbreaks as pandemic restrictions are lifted,” they said.

“Without continued funding, the lifesaving impact of vaccinations are at risk,” the authors wrote.

However, the upcoming $10 billion package of COVID-19 support—already short of the White House’s initial ask—has hit a snag as the Senate departed on its two-week recess without voting on the deal that would allow the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to purchase vaccines, therapeutics and tests in advance.

“Failure is not an option here,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said during a joint press conference Thursday with World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “I have faith that Congress will do what it must. I just hope that faith is rewarded quickly, because every time we delay is a step further back.”