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Rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Mass. is driven by those who are unvaccinated, Baker says

A nurse drew a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine from a vial in February.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Even as hospitalizations among vaccinated residents rise, recent increases in Massachusetts’s COVID hospitalization rates continue to be driven by those who are unvaccinated, Governor Charlie Baker said Monday, while urging those who haven’t yet been vaccinated to get the shots.

During a news conference Monday, Baker was asked about state data that show the number of so-called “breakthrough” COVID-19 infections has been increasing, and he argued that more widespread vaccination would blunt the rising hospitalization rates.

“The vaccines protect against serious illness and death,” Baker said during the conference to announce a COVID-19 rapid test distribution program that first targets the state’s hardest-hit communities. “If you look at the hospitalization rates of the vaccinated and the unvaccinated in Massachusetts, if the unvaccinated got vaccinated, we drop our hospitalization rates by 50 percent.”

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The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations nationwide is down this year compared to last year due to the widespread availability of vaccines, Baker added.

“The main reason there’s so far fewer people in the hospital this year than there were last year, with the presence of Delta and all that comes with it, is because of the vaccines,” he said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have been rising in Massachusetts since about mid-November. State data show that from September until mid-November, the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital hovered around the 500 to 600 range. That number has been steadily rising since about Nov. 12, when the number of COVID-19 patients in Massachusetts hospitals stood at 539. According to data released Friday, 1,238 people were in Massachusetts hospitals for COVID-19.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations this year is still fewer than last year. On Dec. 9, 2020, 1,607 people were hospitalized.

The rise in hospitalizations has coincided with an increase in the number of vaccinated people hospitalized with COVID-19. The number of breakthrough hospitalizations began rising around the same time as total COVID-19 hospitalizations, according to state data, with 216 fully vaccinated people hospitalized with COVID on Nov. 12 and 411 people hospitalized as of Friday’s report.

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While the number of breakthrough hospitalizations has been rising, it has come amid a rise in total COVID-19 hospitalizations, meaning vaccinated people are not making up a larger share of hospitalizations. Data show the number of vaccinated people who are hospitalized with COVID-19 has hovered around 30 percent since the state began reporting that metric in August.

In a highly vaccinated state like Massachusetts, where 82.8 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there comes a point where there is going to be an increase in the number of vaccinated people who are infected with the virus, said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.

“If you had a population that was 100 percent vaccinated, 100 percent of your COVID hospitalizations would be vaccinated,” Doron said. “There is sort of a tipping point at which you are going to see even more vaccinated people in the hospital than unvaccinated.”

But the level of COVID-19 circulating in Massachusetts now is “extremely disappointing.”

“Here we are a year into our vaccination campaign. We thought that if we got to a high level of vaccination it would bring cases down, and it really hasn’t,” Doron said.

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The state provides a weekly tally of COVID-19 breakthrough cases, hospitalizations, and deaths and calculates breakthrough rates from the total number of those in Massachusetts who are fully vaccinated.

By that metric, the hospitalization rate of fully vaccinated people in Massachusetts is 0.05 percent, because a total of 2,716 vaccinated people have been hospitalized in Massachusetts since shots began being administered, out of the more than 4.9 million people who were fully vaccinated as of the date the data was compiled.

Last week, the state reported its highest single-week total of breakthrough COVID-19 infections, with 11,321 new cases for a total of 88,968 since the start of the vaccination campaign, accounting for 1.8 percent of all fully vaccinated people. The state also reported 61 more deaths last week, raising the total of breakthrough deaths to 647, or 0.01 percent of those who are vaccinated.

At Tufts Medical Center Monday, 10 of the hospital’s 30 total COVID-19 patients were vaccinated against the virus, a spokesman said. Of the 11 COVID-19 patients in the ICU, three were inoculated.

On Monday at UMass Memorial Health, the largest hospital system in Massachusetts, 25 percent of all COVID patients were vaccinated, and 14 percent of ICU patients were inoculated, a spokesman said.

Dr. Paul Biddinger, medical director for emergency preparedness at Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest hospital system that includes Mass. General and Brigham & Women’s hospitals in Boston, said Monday that the number of COVID-19 patients in his system who are fully vaccinated has tended to change.

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“Our numbers do fluctuate a bit, but about two-thirds of all of our COVID inpatients are unvaccinated, and about one-third are partially or fully vaccinated,” Biddinger said in a statement.

He said most patients “who are fully vaccinated and admitted are older and often have medical comorbidities that put them at higher risk of severe illness. Very few of the patients who are admitted to our hospitals are fully vaccinated patients who have had boosters. The proportion of unvaccinated patients in the ICUs is slightly higher, closer to three-quarters.

“We are strongly encouraging all of our patients to get vaccinated and to receive a booster when they are eligible as one of the most important ways that they can protect themselves,” he added.


Martin Finucane of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.