Mixed messages about COVID-19 from the media, politicians, and public heath officials have left many Americans questioning what information they can trust. 

Across the nation, some political leaders and health experts continue to push for individuals to be vaccinated. We now know, however, that those who are vaccinated still may be infected by the coronavirus and contract COVID-19, although they remain far less likely to be hospitalized or die than those who are unvaccinated and contract COVID-19.

Vaccination data tells a positive story and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should relay all the facts to Americans, says Kevin Dayaratna, who is principal statistician, data scientist, and research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, parent organization of The Daily Signal.

“The safety and the efficacy of the vaccines was tested last year. And we are continuing to see data and there are overall overwhelmingly no serious effects,” Dayaratna says.

Dayaratna and Norbert Michel, director of Heritage’s Center for Data Analysis, just released a new report examining the effectiveness of the vaccines against the delta variant. The report, “A Statistical Analysis of COVID-19 Breakthrough Infections and Deaths,” dives deep into the data and facts about the spread of the virus and the efficacy of the vaccines. 

Dayaratna joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain what you need to know. 

We also cover these stories:

  • President Joe Biden defends his handling of Afghanistan in a new interview.
  • Dozens of senators call on the Biden administration to move faster to evacuate holders of Special Immigrant Visas from Afghanistan.
  • The Department of Education announces cancellation of student loans for over 300,000 disabled Americans.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined by Kevin Dayaratna, a principal statistician, data scientist, and research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Kevin, thank you so much for being here.

Kevin Dayaratna: Thank you for having me, Virginia.

Allen: Kevin, you’ve just released a new report titled “A Statistical Analysis of COVID-19 Breakthrough Infections and Deaths.” And this report, it really centers around the question, does the vaccine work? And even more specifically, does it work against the delta variant? So Kevin, share with us a little bit about the report and what you found.

Dayaratna: Absolutely, Virginia. Yeah. Thanks for asking this very important question. So last month, in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, there were a variety of festivities going on and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] published a morbidity and mortality weekly report discussing COVID proliferation at these festivities. And the paper was published toward the end of last month. They found that over three-quarters of the cases reported were amongst fully vaccinated people.

And not surprisingly, this permeated the news media, this was sensationalized. You had news headlines saying 74% of COVID cases in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, were amongst the fully vaccinated, things like that, which we cite in our report. And I just felt it incumbent upon ourselves to look at this data more carefully and see exactly what was going on. And we found that the CDC study was critically flawed and that this is really a gross misrepresentation of what had happened over there.

Allen: So talk a little bit more about that. I mean, why is that a gross representation? Because I’ve also heard those statistics of people saying, “Why should I get the vaccine because so many people that are vaccinated are still getting sick?”

Dayaratna: Well, we talk about this in the study, 74% of cases that were amongst the fully vaccinated in Barnstable County, Massachusetts—firstly, this is not a representative sample of the American population. Secondly, the CDC study failed to look at the question with respect to everybody who attended the festivities. And we decided to examine this question ourselves.

We found that, assuming 60,000 people had attended the festivities, which is in line with what other people have suggested is the number of people who attended, using a variety of vaccination rates amongst all the attendees, ranging from 60% all the way up to above 95%, we find that less than 2% of the fully vaccinated ended up with COVID. So that really is the truth there in terms of the assumptions that we made.

And obviously, you don’t know about all the cases because not everybody’s getting tested, but based on the available data, we found that only 2% of the attendees who had contracted COVID were fully vaccinated.

So that is really the story here. And if anything, that’s actually good news that it shows that the vaccine works and depending on the assumptions made, the unvaccinated population incurred significantly higher percentages of contraction, because they’re obviously not nearly as well protected as the vaccinated.

Allen: So Kevin, how likely are those who have had the vaccine to get seriously sick or die from COVID-19 versus those who are not vaccinated? What did you discover in the data?

Dayaratna: Great question, Virginia. Based on data reported by the CDC, obviously, there is no vaccine that provides 100% protection against pretty much anything, but with this vaccine, again, although you don’t have 100% protection against infection, you do have pretty darn good protection against severe infection and death.

The chances of dying of COVID or being hospitalized of COVID are very slim. Specifically, there were 7,101 hospitalizations and 1,507 deaths reported by the CDC. And this really represents about 0.005% of the fully vaccinated. So again, the chances of something catastrophic happening, they’re not zero, but they are slim to none.

Allen: OK. So is that pretty normal statistics for a vaccine that you would see? Even those that receive a vaccine are still at some risk of contracting a sickness or a virus?

Dayaratna: Yeah. Like I said, it’s rare to have vaccines that really have 100% efficacy. For example, the chickenpox vaccine, the meningitis vaccine, and others, they have pretty good efficacy, but it’s around about 85% to 90%, but nothing is perfect. But the point of these vaccines is really to prevent against severe infection, hospitalization, and death. And the COVID vaccine definitely does protect against that.

Allen: Mm-hmm. You obviously mentioned the CDC research and guidelines and report. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced new COVID guidelines at the end of July and included in those guidelines was that everyone, including vaccinated people, should be wearing masks. She essentially alleged that the vaccine offers little protection against the delta variant. You disagree with Director Walensky, why?

Dayaratna: Yes, my colleague Norbert Michel and I fundamentally disagree. We not only co-authored this report, but we also co-authored a report on mask mandates in Kansas earlier in the year where the state of Kansas had a specific policy that enabled us to really look at basically what was a controlled experiment. Where the governor signed an executive order that enabled some counties to sign onto a mask mandate and others did not so you could really examine case proliferation amongst the counties that had mask mandates and those that did not.

And what we noticed there was that there was a slight difference amongst the counties that had mask mandates versus those that did not. But those differences, firstly, were not statistically significant. And secondly, in both the mask-mandated counties and the nonmandated counties, cases increased, and there was really no meaningful impact on deaths at all.

So when you look at this, it really suggests that mask mandates don’t really affect COVID proliferation, but the bottom line is, we look at it in this recent report, the vaccine does.

Allen: So much of that comes down to the messaging and what people are hearing. And you point out in the report that public health officials, news outlets, that they’ve just done a poor job of communicating the difference between the risk of infection and the risk of serious illness and death. Why do you think this is and why is it so important to really be differentiating between those who test positive for COVID-19 and then those who actually get very, very ill?

Dayaratna: Yes, quite frankly, Virginia, this is due to sensational reporting by the news media because they want to have articles that are widely read and gain traction by publishing controversial headlines saying things along the lines of, “74% of those who attended the Barnstable festivities were fully vaccinated.” It is, quite frankly, irresponsible reporting because, if anything, this type of thing is only going to increase vaccine hesitancy.

So it is fundamentally important that people, particularly the news media, differentiate between cases, severe infection and death, regarding COVID and that you clearly do see the distinction amongst the fully vaccinated.

Now, obviously, like I said, there is nothing that is going to prevent a hospitalization or death 100%, but the chances of that happening in this case are basically slim to none.

Allen: You mentioned vaccine hesitancy—obviously, the vaccine has become a really large national debate and a lot of people are hesitant to get the vaccine. And yet we continue to see a major push by some to get everyone vaccinated.

But Kevin, if the data is accurate, then those who are vaccinated will be largely safe and those who are unvaccinated, they’re making that personal choice to take that risk. So especially as conservatives, if we believe in personal freedom and autonomy, then why should anyone be vaccinated who’s hesitant to get the shot?

Dayaratna: Great question, Virginia. So yes, in this country, people obviously do have a significant amount of liberty to do whatever they want. I was speaking with Jeff Singer of the Cato Institute. He’s a senior fellow there and he’s also a practicing surgeon. And he tells patients that are vaccine-hesitant, “Obviously, you don’t have to get the vaccine, but it is perfectly safe. And if you end up on the ventilator, it’s on you.”

So it is important to really consider the benefits of getting vaccinated and that is to prevent severe infection and death. And it’s sad that there are many people who are vaccine-hesitant that are now ending up in the hospital when it could have easily been prevented.

Allen: And obviously, one of the biggest reasons why people are hesitant is for health and safety concerns. And it seems impossible to know the long-term effects of the vaccine until it’s been, well, a long time. So how confident do you think we can really be that the vaccine is actually safe and we won’t find out 10 years down the road that it’s causing people health complications?

Dayaratna: Virginia, that’s a very good question. But the thing is, medications are different from vaccines. Medications … some may take—especially with chronic conditions—for an extended period of time. But with vaccines, what has been noted in the past is that yes, some vaccines do indeed have side effects and there are safety concerns with some of them, but pretty much always, in fact, always, as far as I know, the issues have manifested themselves within a few weeks of the vaccine.

These vaccines have not developed issues, say, years down the line. You notice the issues early on. For example, polio in 1955 was given and it’s still given, obviously, but that vaccine had some cases in 2.4 million recipients that caused paralysis. But this occurred between one and four weeks after the vaccination. Now, none of the COVID vaccines, unlike the polio vaccine, actually use a live form of the virus. So there really is nothing to worry about long term-wise here.

The safety and the efficacy of the vaccines was tested last year. And we are continuing to see data and there are overall overwhelmingly no serious effects. … There was some drama with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine a couple of weeks ago, but those concerns were looked at. And now all these vaccines are overwhelmingly deemed to be safe.

Allen: All right. Kevin, let’s dive back into the report for just a moment. As you did research on the vaccine and these breakthrough cases and people who are vaccinated, was there anything that you discovered that you found really particularly fascinating or that surprised you?

Dayaratna: Yeah. Toward the end of the study, after looking at the Barnstable report and discussing why it was flawed and what the issues were with it, we compared the causes of death of COVID to other causes of death. And what we found was that amongst the fully vaccinated, you have a 1 in 31,000 chance of being hospitalized and a 1 in 137,000 chance of dying.

Now, obviously, these odds are not nothing because they are non-zero, but there are many other things that are more likely to kill you, including dying [from] choking on food, dying from electrocution, or dying from bee stings. And the chances of death of COVID-19, being fully vaccinated, based on the currently available data, are pretty comparable to dying [from] getting struck by lightning. So that was really what was most interesting to me, looking at those statistics.

And what we found was that still, for the unvaccinated, though, COVID-19 can still be very dangerous, especially for the elderly. And my calculations show that amongst the elderly, for example, above the age of 65, the odds of dying of COVID upon contracting the virus are around 1 and 8, and across all ages, around 1 in 54. So this is still a dangerous virus for the unvaccinated. And it’s important that people who are vaccine-hesitant really think about this quite a bit.

Allen: So Kevin, what should the CDC be communicating to the American people right now? I mean, what is the best path forward to both respect the freedom of the American people, but also limit the spread of COVID-19?

Dayaratna: Great question, Virginia. The CDC is really, basically, sending mixed signals about the safety of vaccines, especially to the vaccine-hesitant, and the efficacy of the vaccine to the vaccine-hesitant. Because they’re tastefully telling people that regardless of your vaccination status, you need to continue to wear a mask in public. That is the implication of the recent [Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report]. And this really runs the risk of increasing vaccine hesitancy.

So what the CDC really should be doing [is it] should be discussing how the vaccine is safe and efficacious and encouraging people to get vaccinated, rather than telling everybody, regardless of vaccination status, to continue to wear masks.

Allen: Thank you so much, Kevin. Kevin Dayaratna, a principal statistician, data scientist, and research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. If you want to read Kevin’s full report, you can visit The Heritage Foundation website. The report, again, is titled “A Statistical Analysis of COVID-19 Breakthrough Infections and Deaths.” Kevin, thank you so much for your time today.

Dayaratna: Thanks for having me, Virginia.

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