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The Covid-19 vaccines are still working

Despite the delta surge, the vaccines have held up well.

A health worker prepares a Covid-19 vaccine dose in Madrid, Spain, on February 25, 2021.
Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images

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As the delta variant surged in the US earlier this year, it wasn’t hard to find reports suggesting that the Covid-19 vaccines weren’t working all that well. The federal government renewed its recommendation that vaccinated people wear masks, officials warned that vaccinated people could still spread the virus, and cases spiked across much of the country.

But since then, things have become clearer: The vaccines are working — and Covid-19 is on the retreat.

First, there’s the scientific data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in August unvaccinated people were six times as likely to test positive for Covid-19 as vaccinated people, and 11 times as likely to die from the virus. The vaccines really do protect people, especially against the worst outcomes, even against delta.

A chart of Covid-19 deaths among the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

But what about transmission? One concern — underlying the federal call for vaccinated people to mask up — is that vaccinated people could still spread the virus, especially delta. You may find, on social media or in real life, someone saying the vaccine doesn’t stop the disease from spreading.

The evidence suggests this is false. A recent preprint study from the Netherlands, which looked at spread in households, found vaccinated people who were infected (mostly with delta) were 63 percent less likely to spread the virus than people who were unvaccinated and infected. And that’s probably an underestimate, because vaccinated people are less likely to be infected by the virus to begin with — another layer of protection against spread of the disease.

There is some evidence the vaccines’ effectiveness may wane for infection, but it’s not clear if that’s true for hospitalization and death.

All of this helps explain what’s happening across the US now: Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are dropping. After a peak of nearly 2,100 deaths a day in September, the US is now at 1,400 deaths a day — still too high, but a real improvement.

A chart of Covid-19 deaths in the US. Our World in Data

There are parts of the country that continue to see outbreaks, including Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Idaho.

But these are, not coincidentally, some of the least vaccinated parts of the US. While some states have fully vaccinated more than 60 or 70 percent of their population, most of the states in the top 10 with reported cases and deaths right now have full vaccination rates in the 40s and low 50s.

Of course, things could still turn for the worse. Winter is coming — and, last year, it brought the worst of all Covid-19 waves nationwide as people moved indoors and got together for the holidays. A new variant could also spark a rise in cases.

But it’s also possible — not certain, but possible — the current decline could leave behind the last major Covid-19 surge in the US.

One positive signal comes from the UK, which saw its delta wave earlier than America. While Covid-19 cases have continued to bounce up and down in the UK, the death rate has held remarkably steady — one-tenth to one-ninth the size of the country’s largest peak in January.

A chart of Covid-19 deaths in the UK. Our World in Data

This offers a potential peek at the future: The coronavirus will continue to spread in some form. But through higher vaccination rates and natural immunity from infection, the virus will be defanged — no longer the threat it once was, instead more akin to the flu. It’s a pathogen we’d all be better off without, but perhaps one we can mostly live with.

This isn’t guaranteed, especially as long as much of the US refuses to get vaccinated.

But there are some things that can be said right now: The vaccines truly are working. The virus is genuinely receding in the US. And while Covid-19 has found a way to surprise everyone over the past year and a half, there’s some reason to hope that it may not this time.

Paper of the week: Free school lunches don’t only help kids

A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the broader impact of school lunch programs — finding they likely benefit not just schoolchildren but also the population as a whole.

Researchers Jessie Handbury and Sarah Moshary focused on local and state adoption of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s Community Eligibility Provision, which expanded the National School Lunch Program to reach more than 30 million children in 2016.

Taking advantage of how the national program rolled out in different areas, they found that its adoption was linked to a 10 percent decline in grocery sales at large chains. Subsequently, the chains most exposed to the program reduced their prices by 2.5 percent across the board.

Using a model, the researchers estimated that the program had reduced grocery costs for the median household by around 4.5 percent by 2016, with some variation from place to place.

All of this suggests that school lunch programs have benefits that can reach the entire population. That’s great news for everyone (except maybe the grocery chains) — if the findings hold up under further scrutiny and can be replicated.

In the current context of inflation concerns, the study also reveals one way that more government spending can actually reduce inflationary pressures, rather than make inflation worse by simply driving up demand. It’s an example some policymakers might want to look at as Democrats keep working on their Build Back Better bill.