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Elderly account for most COVID-19 deaths in county

People 65 and older now account for nine of out 10 COVID-19 deaths, a higher proportion than at any other time in the pandemic.

Of 75 deaths reported in Clark County in November, 65 — or 87 percent — were in this age group, Southern Nevada Health District preliminary data shows, mirroring national trends.

In the summer of 2021, just 54 percent of deaths reported in the county were in those 65 and older, according to a Review-Journal data analysis. This past summer, the figure was 79 percent.

The growing percentage doesn’t mean that older people who become ill from COVID-19 are more likely to die now than they were earlier in the pandemic, according to Julie Swann, a systems engineer and professor at North Carolina University who analyzes COVID-19 data and trends. The rate of death for older people has declined, just not as much as it has for those who are younger, she said.

“We’ve always had that 75-plus have had the highest rate of deaths,” Swann said. “What we have now is that the rate of deaths in those who are a little bit younger” — such as 55 — “are lower than they were,” she said. This results in older people accounting for a larger share of recent deaths.

Seventy-nine percent of recent COVID-19 deaths in those 65 and up were in people ages 75 and older, according to data provided by the health district on deaths that occurred in October and November.

‘We have to just be real about this’

Most people have now been exposed to COVID-19, and as a result, have built up some level of immunity to the virus, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated. However, as people age, their immune systems weaken, making them more susceptible to severe illness and death from the virus, even if they’ve already had the virus and have been vaccinated.

Adding to the vulnerability of older people is that many have underlying health conditions.

An older person may not receive the same level of protection from vaccination as a younger person.

“We know that seniors have a poor immune system response when it comes to being vaccinated,” said Cassius Lockett, director of disease surveillance and control for the Southern Nevada Health District. “They need the bivalent (booster) vaccine more than any other group” to boost neutralizing antibodies and immune system response, he said.

There needs to be a greater emphasis on vaccinating older people, considering that they are bearing the brunt of the pandemic, authorities said.

“We should be vaccinating and boosting everyone in a nursing home,” said Dr. William Shaffner, a professor specializing in infectious diseases and preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “We’re not doing that very well.”

Early in the pandemic, the federal government contracted with major pharmacy chains to bring the COVID-19 vaccines into nursing homes. But now it’s often left up to an individual facility to determine whether vaccinations and booster shots will be offered to residents, said Schaffner, who serves on a vaccine advisory panel for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Demand for the updated booster has been lackluster. Nationwide, 14 percent of people age 5 and older have gotten the bivalent booster, and almost 36 percent of those 65 and up, according to CDC data. In Nevada, more than 10 percent of those 5 and up have gotten the bivalent booster, and almost 30 percent of those 65 and older.

The health district is shifting its focus toward vaccinating more seniors, including going to nursing homes and doing pop-up clinics, Lockett said.

“This is the population that’s most at risk right now,” he said. “We have to just be real about this.”

Swann said that the risk of serious illness from COVID-19 will continue to be highest for people who are older or have compromised immune systems, as well as for infants.

Others can reduce the risk to these more vulnerable people by getting boosted, testing before a gathering and considering wearing a mask, she said.

“When we take our action, we should be thinking not only about our individual connections, but also the impact it could have on your household, your own social network and on your broader community,” Swann said.

To find COVID-19 vaccine locations near you, search vaccines.gov, text your ZIP code to 438829, or call 1-800-232-0233.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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