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

COVID, the elderly and the rising death rate: What the media still haven’t reported

The bad old days. Middlesex Fells, July 2020.

Last month I criticized an opinion piece by David Wallace-Wells in The New York Times for failing to pull together two lines of statistics about the elderly and COVID-19. Yes, the death rate among those 80 and older remains very high, but we don’t have a clear sense of how many of those who died had received the bivalent booster, the best protection available against serious illness and death.

Today we run into a similar problem in The Boston Globe, although at least reporter Felice J. Freyer doesn’t make any opinionated assertions for which she lacks data. Freyer reports that the COVID death rate in Massachusetts is jumping up again. In a chart that accompanies her story, we learn that the latest death rate is now 62.14 per 100,000 cases. Of the 129 deaths, 76.8% were 80 and older, and 15.9% were between 70 and 79. The rate among those 29 and younger was zero.

We also learn from Freyer’s reporting that 59% of Massachusetts residents 65 and older have received the bivalent booster, a much higher proportion than the 38% who’ve received it in the country as a whole. That is to our credit.

But here’s where the twain never meets. What we would really like to know, more than anything, is how many of those elderly people in Massachusetts who are dying of COVID are also among the 41% who didn’t receive the bivalent booster. We can be reasonably sure that the death rate among the unboosted elderly is higher than it is for those who’ve been boosted. But how much higher? Does anyone know?

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  1. In the raw data the Commonwealth provides, there’s only one item of data regarding vaccination status. The number of fully vaxxed patients hospitalized is tracked, but that’s all.

  2. NancyA

    Hi Dan,

    Many thanks for your piece.

    I would find it helpful to see clear statistical breakdowns of how symptoms (duration, severity) differ by age and vaccination status. Also, how age and vaxx status factors into the likelihood of contracting Long Covid. Finally, how group norms affect disease spread. A friend just returned from Japan where the government is begging citizens to stop wearing masks outside, to no avail.

    I’m trying to re-train myself into wearing masks when I’m shopping indoors, although that does not generally involve conversation with people for over 5 minutes at closer than 6 feet. Check outs mostly occur between me and a computer, with the exception of Trader Joe’s. For now, I’m eschewing live indoor musical events, sadly.

    I guess we’re all, to some extent, experiencing a very long Covid.

    Be well & thanks again,

  3. Hi Dan:
    I also don’t understand why outlets keep reporting the average daily case numbers. Since we are no longer tracking cases accurately (and states have no consistent measurement practices) and there is no mechanism to report home-test results to the government, the average daily case numbers are misleadingly low (and pretty much meaningless at this point). But if you look at the charts of daily cases things look pretty good, especially when compared to 2020 and 2021 when the data was more accurate. Yet, we really have no idea what the average daily case numbers are.

    • Dan Kennedy

      George, I couldn’t agree with you more. Those numbers are totally worthless. I think the wastewater numbers are now the best guide — and they are heading up, as you know.

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