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Is the COVID pandemic getting less deadly? The gap between cases and deaths is widening

February 14, 2022, 5:13 AM UTC

The pandemic looks a whole lot different in 2022. Vaccines are working, treatments are advancing and—at least for now—the virus itself seems less intent on killing. The likelihood of surviving COVID-19 is improving around the world. 

In the U.S., there were nearly four times as many positive cases for each death this year when compared to last winter’s peak, according to a new analysis from Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker. In the European Union, where more people have been vaccinated, this survival ratio was 11 times higher than last winter. Even in countries with lower vaccination rates, COVID patients were increasingly likely to recover. 

Bloomberg’s new analysis shows that, in country after country, the link between infections and deaths is uncoupling.

The COVID vaccine has changed the course of the pandemic. In the last year, more than 129 doses have been administered for every 100 people around the world. Improving survival rates can be seen in the second half of 2021 for many higher-vaccinated countries, even as the especially virulent delta strain was dominant. 

The Omicron Paradox 

The omicron variant that emerged in December was less likely to cause severe illness, but it spread much faster—even among the vaccinated. Hospitals were overburdened by the sudden spike, and half a million people have died in the brief time since the variant emerged, according to the World Health Organization. 

While the vaccines were less effective against omicron at preventing infection, they served their most important function. Vaccination with a booster reduced the chance of hospitalization and death by more than 90%

The uncoupling of cases and deaths during the winter omicron wave suggests a potential end to the emergency phase of the pandemic. As omicron cases subsided in February, even U.S. states with some of the most restrictive COVID measures began to reassess their policies on masks and vaccine requirements. 

The world remains vulnerable to new strains and unexpected waves of infection as long as large swaths of the globe remain unvaccinated, cautioned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization. In Africa, for example, less than 15% of the population is covered. 

“Our expectation is that the acute phase of this pandemic will end this year, of course with one condition,” Ghebreyesus said. The condition, he said, is that at least 70% of the global population is vaccinated by the middle of the year.  

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