The COVID-19 pandemic is at a crossroads in the United States. On the one hand, U.S. cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have trended dramatically downward from their peaks in January 2022. Many jurisdictions have relaxed their pandemic restrictions, and many people have returned to in-person work and social events, creating a sense that the end is near. On the other hand, hundreds of deaths are still reported each day, and cases have again started to rise in several parts of the U.S. as the highly contagious Omicron subvariant BA.2 has taken hold as the dominant virus variant. In coming weeks, COVID-19 outbreaks in Europe and China may foreshadow another surge in U.S. cases.
Amid this uncertainty, Congress is debating the need for additional pandemic-related policies. Federal funding for testing and coverage of vaccination costs is poised to expire as the public health emergency ends. Some are questioning the need for vaccines and boosters. But others are warning about the potential impact of waning immunity and new variants driving outbreaks even among previously vaccinated groups.
In December 2021, we reported that the first year of the U.S. vaccination effort had averted 1.1 million deaths and 10.3 million hospitalizations (compared to a no-vaccine scenario), primarily by blunting a surge in the Delta variant during the summer and early autumn of 2021. Since then, nearly all U.S. regions have experienced a massive wave of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths caused by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Yet that wave could have been much larger in the absence of a vaccination program. As Congress considers whether to fund additional vaccination programs, two pressing questions are: What was the impact of U.S. vaccination efforts on this most recent outbreak? And how much spending on health care was avoided?
In this post, we update our estimates to include the winter Omicron wave, calculating the numbers of COVID-related deaths and hospitalizations avoided because of the U.S. vaccination program. Additionally, we estimate in U.S. dollars the health care spending averted as a result of COVID-19 vaccination. To do so, we used a model that encapsulates the characteristics of the coronavirus variants, their transmission, and outcomes to compare the observed pandemic trajectory (of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths) to a counterfactual scenario in which no vaccination program existed. The model accounts for waning immunity and changes in population behavior over time as schools and businesses have reopened and travel has increased. We have refined our model to reflect emerging scientific evidence. See “How We Conducted This Study” for further details.
Through March 2022, we estimate that COVID-19 vaccination efforts in the U.S. prevented over 2 million deaths and 17 million hospitalizations. There would have been an estimated 66 million additional infections and nearly $900 billion in associated health care costs in the absence of vaccination.