Fact-checking the connection between low vaccine rates, high case counts

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — During the current delta-driven COVID-19 surge, one thing has become even clearer: The lower your group’s vaccine numbers are, the higher your risk is of catching it.

Gov. Roy Cooper called out one group in particular for having gotten relatively few vaccines and accounting for a high number of cases.

THE CLAIM: Cooper said that “less than half of those ages 12 to 24 have had one dose. And case rates right now are the highest in this age group.”

THE FACTS: We checked his math, and he’s right.

Roughly 46 percent of the people in that age bracket have gotten at least one shot. And according to the latest weekly demographic data from the state Department of Health and Human Services, they accounted for just under 13,000 of the nearly 33,000 cases — or, almost 40 percent — reported during the week of Sept. 12.

But the correlation isn’t limited to age groups — it’s even more apparent in terms of geography.

“I think we’re faced with a very stark reality. We just have to look at it,” said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

We looked at two key county maps produced by DHHS — the number of new cases per capita over the past two weeks, and the percentage of a county’s residents that are at least partially vaccinated.

They look like inverse images of one another: Counties with high vaccination rates have low new case counts, and vice versa.

“I think there’s going to always be hotspots, where there’s a lot of vulnerable people, double-digit percent and more, who are going to get sick with COVID-19 because they’re not vaccinated,” Wohl said.

We also looked specifically at the past two months, when the surge caused by the delta variant began to show up in the state’s numbers.

We compared the five counties with the highest vaccination rates to those with the lowest, and calculated the number of new cases and deaths during that time in each.

There were five counties — Harnett, Gates, Rutherford, Robeson and Swain — where no more than 40 percent of its residents were at least partially vaccinated.

The combined death-to-case ratio — a version of the death rate — was more than seven times higher in those counties than it was in the five counties with the best vaccination rates.

In those five counties, that ratio was 0.013, as compared to 0.0018 in Orange, Dare, Wake, Durham and Buncombe counties.

“Wherever there is high uptake of vaccines, we see less people end up in a hospital, hooked up to a ventilator, or dying,” Wohl said.

The presence of those geographic locations with high case rates lead Wohl to say that “I think this concept of herd immunity that we’ve been talking about, I think it kind of went out the window once delta came around.”

Even if the vaccination rate across the U.S. reaches 90 percent, he said that remaining 10 percent is “still a large number of people.

“And they cluster in geographic areas,” he said. “I worry that we’re never going to be completely able to extinguish that from happening in smaller pockets.”

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