July 22, 2021

Is a person’s chance of surviving COVID-19 the same, vaccinated or not?

“Unvaccinated, you can get COVID and have over 99% chance of survival,” conservative commentator Tomi Lahren said on Facebook, where she has 4.8 million followers. “Get vaccinated and you can STILL get COVID and will still have over 99% chance of survival.”

Her post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

Vaccines don’t offer 100% protection. Some vaccinated people will get COVID-19, and some of them will die.

But Lahren’s claim incorrectly conflates survival rates for the population at large with an individual’s chances of survival, which can vary widely depending on individual circumstances. And in suggesting that vaccines don’t make a difference, Lahren ignores evidence showing vaccines are highly effective at preventing infections that could cause death.

“The statement is really well written to be misleading,” said Cindy Prins, an epidemiology professor at the University of Florida. “The interpretation could easily be that there’s no difference between unvaccinated and being vaccinated, in terms of chances of survival. But it leaves out what vaccines do in preventing disease in the first place.

“The vaccine is preventing the vast amount of cases that you would have had,” Prins added. “And if you reduce the risk of becoming a case, then you can’t die from COVID.”

Case fatality rates, and why they’re misleading

Lahren, a Fox Nation talk show host, did not reply to our request for information to support her claim.

More than 609,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. Estimates of the U.S. case fatality rate — the ratio of confirmed deaths to confirmed cases — are around 1.8%, according to the U.K. nonprofit Our World in Data and Johns Hopkins University. (Among the 20 countries most affected by COVID-19, case fatality rates range from 0.8% in Thailand and Malaysia, to 9.3% in Peru, according to Johns Hopkins.)

Adding in unconfirmed cases — those without a positive test result — would likely bring the U.S. mortality rate below 1%, suggesting a survival rate of over 99%.

However, experts say that the survival rate for the infected population at large is not the same as an individual’s chance of survival after getting the disease.

The chance of survival for a given individual or demographic group depends on a host of factors, including age and health history.

Figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show how just one factor — age — increases the risk of death for a person with COVID-19.

The CDC uses people in the 18-to-29 age group as a benchmark, because that age group has accounted for the largest cumulative number of COVID-19 cases. For people in the 30-to-39 age group, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is four times as high. The risk increases for each older group, with people aged 85 and over being 600 times as likely to die.

These figures don’t take into account other risk factors, such as preexisting health conditions, that would affect a person’s chances of dying.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that for 20-year-olds broadly, getting vaccinated probably wouldn’t reduce their mortality rate much, but for 85-year-olds, it would go down significantly.

99% of recent deaths are among unvaccinated people

By comparing survival rates for infected people with and without vaccinations, Lahren’s claim also ignores a significant factor: the impact of vaccinations in preventing infections in the first place.

report published July 7 by the Commonwealth Fund found that without a vaccination program, by the end of June 2021 there would have been about 279,000 additional deaths.

The Associated Press reported that only about 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May were in fully vaccinated people, according to its analysis of CDC data. That translates to about 0.8%, meaning 99.2% of the deaths were among people who were not fully vaccinated.

Preliminary data for June show a similar pattern: 99.5% of deaths from COVID-19 in a collection of states occurred in unvaccinated people, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing July 1.

The CDC’s latest data on so-called breakthrough cases says that as of July 12, more than 159 million people had been fully vaccinated. With 48 states and territories reporting, there were 5,492 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among them, and 1,063 deaths. That included 272 deaths that were reported as not related to COVID-19 or in which there were no COVID-19 symptoms.

Our ruling

Lahren said: “Unvaccinated, you can get COVID and have over 99% chance of survival. Get vaccinated and you can still get COVID and will still have over 99% chance of survival.”

Mortality data shows that some 99% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. do not result in death, but the survival rate for the population at large is not the same as an infected individual’s chance of survival, which depends on many risk factors.

The claim also leaves out important context: the role of vaccines in preventing infections that could lead to death. Preliminary data indicate that in recent months, more than 99% of COVID-19 deaths have been among people who have not been vaccinated.

The claim contains an element of truth, but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression — our definition of Mostly False.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for these fact checks here and more of their fact checks here.

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Tom Kertscher is a contributing writer for PolitiFact. Previously, he was a fact-checker for PolitiFact Wisconsin.
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