Maine molecular biologist’s letter raises questions regarding Maine CDC vaccine data


On March 15, Carolyne Falank, a Ph.D molecular biologist, sent a letter to Dr. Nirav Shah, Director of Maine CDC, regarding a seemingly anomalous finding in state data regarding real-world effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccination.

In her introduction, Dr. Falank asserts, “Maine CDC’s own data do not support the widely made claim that receipt of vaccination prevents hospitalization and death from COVID-19 infection.” This claim deserves deeper scrutiny, but also recognition and explanation from state officials. 

Dr. Falank reviewed the Maine CDC’s weekly breakthrough COVID-19 case reports, published between early August and late December of last year. The letter explains that the analysis is limited to that timeframe because a backlog of thousands of cases beginning in late December, coinciding with the Omicron variant surge, did not allow for clear reporting of breakthrough cases.

The data show Mainers with a breakthrough case of COVID-19 are 56% more likely to be hospitalized—and 60% more likely to die—than those COVID-positive but not fully vaccinated.

As of this printing, no Mills administration officials have commented on the letter or its findings.

This analysis compares the case-hospitalization rates for each cohort. Yet, hospitalization rates among the populations of total vaccinated and unvaccinated Mainers show that those not fully vaccinated are about three-times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 compared to those fully vaccinated.

While these numbers are difficult to pin down with high confidence, how are we to reconcile these seemingly contradictory data points?

Studying case-hospitalization rates is important because it may provide a better look at how the vaccine relates to the severity of illness. After all, in order to test the effectiveness of a vaccine, shouldn’t we compare the outcomes of those who were confronted with the virus after being vaccinated to those who faced the virus without the vaccine? Frequency of severe cases in each group is a helpful metric here. 

State health leaders owe it to the public whom they cajoled and, in some cases, coerced to take these new vaccines, to ask how or why vaccinated people would be less likely to test positive for the virus, but more likely to end up in the hospital if they contracted it?

Of course, there are many potential confounding factors in analyzing this data, which Dr. Falank notes in the letter. For instance, Maine CDC itself notes in its breakthrough reports that their data is likely an undercount of all breakthrough cases; hospitalizations are also a more reliable figure than cases. In other words, while many folks who test positive at home may not report it, leading to undercounting, it is much more likely that all who are present at the hospital will be counted. This means that the breakthrough group may have a smaller denominator than it should, which would show an artificially-high rate among breakthrough cases.

Since older people are both more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and more likely to be vaccinated, more severe breakthrough cases might be occurring among a population already susceptible to severe illness. The state does not require hospitalization data to be split out by age, health status (including comorbid conditions), and access to treatment, in addition to vaccination status, so it is nearly impossible to discern how much this factor clouds the breakthrough data. Older folks are more vulnerable, so one would hope that real-world vaccine effectiveness would show a clear benefit to this group, but unfortunately, the limits of state data collection limit a Maine-specific finding in this realm.

Science in the United States and Europe has thoroughly documented the failure of the COVID-19 vaccines to prevent transmission and infection—a disappointing finding given society’s expectations of vaccines—but the main clinical goal of these vaccines was to prevent symptomatic illness, not a positive test result. Even leaders of corporate vaccine makers like Pfizer and Moderna have recognized quickly-waning efficacy against infection from their products, especially against the Omicron variant.

The push for broad vaccination mandates through public pressure campaigns have centered around the benefits of reducing illness severity in the event of a breakthrough infection. If the Maine CDC’s own breakthrough data do not show a benefit, but an increased risk of hospitalization for vaccinated Mainers, they at least deserve a closer look by state officials.

In the interest of transparency and informed consent, Governor Mills should immediately call on Maine CDC to demand higher quality data on real-world vaccine effectiveness from the hospital systems operating in the state, and report it fully to the public.

Listen to Dr. Falank discuss her letter on a recent episode of Inside Maine on WGAN:

Read Dr. Falank’s full letter here.