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Robert Gehrke: The vaccine is working. Here are three Utah stats that prove it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

The deployment of COVID-19 vaccines has gone faster than I ever expected.

Instead of opening availability to everyone in the summer or fall, as was predicted early on, we’ll have every Utahn over the age of 16 eligible to sign up for an appointment this week.

It’s been remarkable progress and (for the vaccine skeptics among us) we’re seeing the results. Consider these three facts:

Cases in long-term-care facilities have plummeted

When the vaccines first arrived in the state, one of the first groups targeted for the shots were residents and staff in nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities. The reason is obvious: Of the more than 2,000 Utahns who died from the virus, 678 were residents in long-term care. That means roughly one out of every 26 people living in one of those facilities have died from the virus in the past year. That’s brutal.

When these elderly and medically frail Utahns started getting vaccinations in mid-December, the situation was about as bad as it had been since the start of the pandemic. The coronavirus had infiltrated 152 of the 352 state-licensed long-term-care centers. A month later it was 107 and a month after that the number had fallen to 48. As of the end of last week, just 14 of the facilities had reported any COVID cases at all, most of those were among staff, not the elderly residents.

Vaccinated people aren’t getting sick

For the past several months, Utah has seen a fairly significant downward trend in new infections. The week the vaccines arrived, we were piling up about 18,000 cases each week, more than 2,500 per day. Last week, there were about 3,500 statewide, a decrease of 80%.

That’s great. But guess which groups have seen even steeper declines: those age groups that have been eligible to get the shot.

Remember, we started vaccinating those 80 years and older around Dec. 15. From December to January, the number of cases among this group in Salt Lake County fell by more than a third, according to the county health department. I’m using Salt Lake County because its age breakdowns track more closely with the state’s age eligibility criteria.

From January to February, it dropped by another 69%, and so far in March its down another 76%. All told, that’s a 95% decrease in cases among those 80 and up.

The next group that was vaccinated, the 70-to-79-year-olds, saw a smaller drop (16%) from December to January — remember, they weren’t eligible for the shot until Jan. 18 — and then saw a 62% decrease from January to February and a 76% drop from February to March. The total decrease since December has been 94%.

Finally, there’s the 60-69 group, which became eligible March 1, so it’s a little harder to attribute a decline to the vaccine, but from February to March this cluster saw cases drop by 68%.

There is a clear trend here, said Annie George, an epidemiologist from the Salt Lake County Health Department. Cases are falling across-the-board, but they have fallen considerably faster among those groups getting vaccinated.

We started with these age groups for a clear reason: Nearly one in every five Utahns over 65 who contracted the coronavirus ended up in the hospital. The vaccinations are doing what we wanted, stopping infections and easing the strain on our health care system.

Vaccinated Utahns are not ending up in the hospital

Getting the shot doesn’t mean you’re suddenly immune. It takes the second shot — unless you get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — and then two more weeks to reach peak immunity. So until then, it’s possible to still get sick (that’s why you should still wear a mask).

But here is some good news. George said that Salt Lake County has been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor what happens to people who are fully vaccinated and, she said, “We haven’t seen anybody who has been hospitalized outside of that two-week window.”

A few people have shown up shortly after the first or second shots, but once a patient reaches that two-week threshold, there have been zero instances of severe illness.

That is worth celebrating. George, though, also offered a note of caution. The county has been seeing cases of the B.1.1.7 variant circulating, with some recently spreading in a high school. This variant is more contagious and may lead to a more severe illness. Contact tracers have stepped up their efforts to get these people quarantined — something that is possible now that cases are down — but it’s challenging because it takes time to identify variants quickly.

“We’re in a race now,” George said.

The vaccine is clearly working. We have the tool to win this race. Make your appointment this week and get your shot as soon as you can. And until then, we need to keep doing our part to keep cases low and to help bring a quick end to this pandemic.

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