By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Fuzzy math: COVID, the elderly and The New York Times

Photo (cc) 2020 by Administración del Principado de Asturias

This kind of fuzziness drives me crazy. David Wallace-Wells, writing in his New York Times newsletter, is rightly concerned that the death rate from COVID-19 remains high among the elderly, which he defines roughly as those 80 and older. And he notes that 94% of Americans 65 and older have been vaccinated.

He puts it this way: “If it was ever comfortable to say that the unconscionable levels of American deaths were a pandemic of the unvaccinated, it is surely now accurate to describe the ongoing toll as a pandemic of the old.” His message, not clearly stated (there is little that’s clear about this piece), is that vaccines are not protecting the elderly from dying from COVID, which is a pretty serious assertion.

But what does he mean by “vaccinated”? Farther down he writes of the high death rate among the elderly:

It is also partly a reflection of how many fewer Americans, including older ones, have gotten boosters than got the initial vaccines: 34 percent, compared with 69 percent. The number of those who have gotten updated bivalent boosters is lower still — just 12.7 percent of Americans over the age of 5.

So is getting fully boosted, including with the bivalent vaccine, decent protection against death and serious illness among the elderly or isn’t it? He doesn’t say, and he probably doesn’t know. I’m guessing that the 94% figure he cites means “fully vaccinated,” which is defined as two shots. As we know, that’s not very protective. At this point, I’ve had four shots plus a mild case of COVID for a total of five immunity-boosting events.

This NBC News story by Aria Bendix is more helpful. Analyzing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bendix reports that 85% of people who died of COVID in November were 65 and older, but only 31% of that age group had received a bivalent booster. Here, too, though, we have two different numbers passing in the night: We don’t know what the death rate was among elderly people who had gotten the bivalent shot. That’s the key fact, right?

This is important, because COVID is both serious business and the subject of ongoing fear-mongering among those who envision all of us wearing masks forever. (I’m not anti-mask; I wear one on public transportation.) What Wallace-Wells establishes is that the elderly, despite vaccines, are dying of COVID at a frighteningly high rate. What he doesn’t establish is whether that’s a consequence of them not getting the bivalent booster.

As Wallace-Wells notes, the elderly don’t get as much protection from vaccines in general because their immune systems are less active. Still, an 80-year-old who’s had the bivalent booster is surely less likely to become seriously ill or die from COVID if they’ve received the bivalent booster than if they’ve only had the first two shots. How much less likely? Who knows?

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  1. Sharon hessney

    LOTS of stat but not possible to compare them since not the same conditional — as you said.

    Sloppy journal that could have been better.

    Also , writing the stats in text, rather than tables or better yet, graphs, is too taxing to really understand.

    Not NYT standard for journalism. Need Amanda Cox!

  2. Joe Weisse

    Greetings Dan, first very informative podcast with the manager of WBUR. Speaking of podcasts do you know if beat the press will have a new program soon question it’s been since September and I hope things are well with Emily and all. Thanks very much seasons greetings Joe Joe

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Paul Hutch

    “At this point, I’ve had four shots”

    Assuming you were 60 or older at the start of the pandemic like me, you should have had five shots by now. The initial 2 shot coarse (1st half 2021), plus three boosters (end of 2021, mid-20222, and the bivalent @ end of 2022).

    • Dan Kennedy

      My Spring 2022 booster was replaced by actually getting COVID. I wanted to get another booster in August, but crossed my fingers and waited for the bivalent. Got it in October.

  4. Carolyn F.

    I used CDC data downloaded on from FluView Interactive ( to create a graph of US Weekly Deaths of Over 65s from PIC as a percentage of Total PIC deaths from January 2015 – October 2022 (November numbers are probably not yet reliable). Has the percentage increased since Sept. 2021? Yes. But in context you can see that it’s back to a “normal” range for Over 65s.

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