A new study found Massachusetts, a state with one of the nation’s highest COVID-19 vaccination rates, had a huge drop in excess virus-related deaths following the omicron surge earlier this year.

One of the authors of the research letter posted online this week in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, Dr. Jeremy Faust, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, credited what he called “herd safety” from vaccinations and previous infections rather than herd immunity.

“This spring, so many people walking around had a recent immune-generating event, vaccine, booster or infection,” Faust, the editor in chief of MedPage Today, told the publication. “So now we have something to show for that, but we don’t know how long it will last.”

Despite hopes earlier in the pandemic that if enough people got the shots and/or the virus, they would have reached what’s known as “herd immunity” and the spread would stop, Faust suggested that’s not what’s happening.

“We are finally in a phase now where highly immune populations can start to shoulder COVID-19 waves without the guarantee of excess mortality,” Faust told MedPage Today. “Before, a COVID wave meant we knew we would have excess mortality.”

But he also cautioned that people are still getting sick and needing hospitalization after contracting COVID-19.

“It’s not all just about excess death,” Faust said in the interview.

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According to the study, even though there were at least a quarter of a million new COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts between February and June of this year due to new, even more highly transmissible omicron subvariants, excess deaths fell more than 97% compared with the eight weeks of the initial omicron wave.

During the omicron wave that sent cases soaring to record levels, the study said there were four excess deaths per 100,000 person-weeks, or 2,239 excess deaths in Massachusetts, compared to 0.1 excess deaths per 100,000 person-weeks in the state, corresponding to 134 excess deaths from February to June.

Excess deaths are defined as the additional number of deaths during the pandemic from all causes beyond what would have been expected. Besides deaths from the virus itself, the calculation includes, for example, people who died as a result of being unable to access preventive care such as cancer screenings.

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The first decline in mortality in Massachusetts during the pandemic came during February to June 2021, when vaccines became widely available. At that point, the age of newly infected people fell significantly and the spread of the virus among people older than 60 was low, according to the study.

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However, in this year’s decline from February to June, newly infected people in Massachusetts were younger, the study found, noting, “in our highly vaccinated state, current levels of immunity are considerable, leaving many, if not most, individuals at high risk with substantial protection against the most severe outcomes” from COVID-19.

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Massachusetts ranks near the top of the list for COVID-19 vaccinations, with 81% of the population fully vaccinated, meaning they received the initial doses of Pfizer or Moderna, or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to data compiled by The New York Times, and 43% are also boosted.

In Utah, 63% of the state is fully vaccinated and just over 30% have also had a booster shot. COVID-19 vaccinations are available to anyone 6 months and older, and booster shots are available for anyone 5 and older. Those who are 50 and older, or who have certain medical conditions, may need additional booster shots.

The White House is planning to roll out a new round of booster shots this fall targeted at the latest strains of the virus, BA.4 and BA.5.

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