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A Look at Why Penguins, NHL Dealing with New COVID Cases



Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Sullivan, Sidney Crosby, COVID

The Pittsburgh Penguins have had eight player COVID absences and one head coach miss 10 days, too. The NHL has just one unvaccinated player, so there are a lot of well-meaning questions about what comes next.

The Penguins were primarily untouched by COVID last season but have been hit this season, despite full vaccination status. With some irony, the Penguins and I were vaccinated on the same days last spring (I signed up with UPMC to get my vax, and they chose to send me to PPG Paints Arena).

And with some irony, I, too, am in “protocol” dealing with COVID. My protocol ends on Monday.

“If your vaccine is so great, why are people getting COVID?”

Such is the bumper sticker retort to question COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness and justify unvaccinated status. Since questions about COVID have dominated recent press avails, it may be a good time to lay out the scientific findings and facts–and the changing scientific findings.

Why are vaccinated NHL players getting COVID in such great numbers?

If you want a bumper sticker answer, now is a good time to stop.

First, neither my opinion nor yours matters. I’m a business owner and sportswriter, not an epidemiologist, scientist, or doctor. And, quite frankly, far too many people without those qualifications have opined or played experts on TV.

So, if you want to know why COVID is spiking again, let’s start with the vaccines themselves.

Efficacy wanes after six months, and the Delta variant has changed the table, too.

According to a study published in the journal Science and digestibly quoted on WebMD, the vaccine immunities wane significantly after six months. Pfizer dropped from 89% to 45%, and Moderna went down to 58%.

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine creates a different immune response, but its immunity efficacy is the worst. All J&J recipients are eligible and encouraged to get a booster vaccine to increase immunities.

Until late Friday afternoon, most states limited boosters to high-risk and older citizens. Pennsylvania is in the latter category.

UPDATE: Late Friday afternoon, the CDC approved boosters for all adults.

I was debating if I would get the booster if available, but a couple of unvaccinated social butterflies who didn’t understand personal boundaries in a public space made my choice for me.

Perhaps the gaggle of Pittsburgh Penguins had the choice made for them, too. As immunity wanes, vaccinated people become more susceptible. Two people glad-handing, imposing on, and touching everyone at the bar can spread a virus quickly.

Ignorance is everywhere, too, eh?


Many states have stopped publishing hospitalization statistics, but Massachusetts continues to publish. The state has a high vaccination rate, but cases are spiking again. Currently, the state statistics show about 30% of hospitalizations are vaccinated, but that means–despite a much smaller population–70% are unvaccinated.

An exhaustive search shows that COVID deaths are almost exclusively confined to unvaccinated and high-risk vaccinated people.

Pennsylvania’s next governor sent me this study from Sweden, which further explains why the Penguins have been harder hit–and likely more NHL teams will follow in the coming months–the vaccine especially fades in men and frail individuals.

Some women say there’s no difference between those two groups, but I digress.

A World of Vaccinated and Unvaccinated, & Transmission.

Locker room life.

Scientists are struggling to quantify the transmission variance between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. At the very least, many studies, including the famed Israeli study, show that Delta spreads from both, but vaccinated individuals broom the clusters of the Delta variant from their nasal cavity and systems much faster. Hence, their contagious period is much shorter.

But there are no quantitative answers yet.

Now–here’s more mixed bag news. Scientists aren’t sure how long natural immunity lasts, either. 

A study of COVID-19 hospitalizations across several states from 187 hospitals found that the odds of getting COVID-19 again were 5.5 times higher among unvaccinated people than among people who were fully vaccinated, according to a CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released in October.

Worse, the more mild the COVID case, the fewer antibodies created. So, if your COVID case was asymptomatic or mild, natural immunity isn’t better than a vaccine.

Vaccine vs. Natural Immunity

We’re moving in the right direction.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 79.7% of people over the age of 12 in the U.S. have had at least one shot as of Nov. 17.

That’s good news.

Epidemiologists are looking at the spike in Vermont. One of the most vaccinated states in the U.S.

However, Dr. John Brownstein–the epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital–told ABC News the virus is using unvaccinated communities as a primary host.

“You still have pockets of unvaccinated people, even in a highly vaccinated state,” said Brownstein. “Unvaccinated individuals are the primary host by which the virus will spread and continue to allow for transmission to take place in the community and ultimately create challenges for those that are vaccinated.”

Think of COVID as fire, unvaccinated as kindling, and unvaccinated as flame retardant materials. Eventually, even flame retardent materials will burn, but the kindling keeps the fire going.

That brings us to current studies.

There is growing evidence and ongoing studies (including Rockefeller University) that show people who have both a vaccine and COVID have much greater immunity. That immunity also lasts longer than those who only have the vaccine or those who only had the virus. You can read the Rockefeller study here. 

It could bode well that the Pittsburgh Penguins dealt with this now. As other teams and players vaccinated later last spring, or over the summer, pass their six-month mark, teams will have more players in COVID protocol.

Sidney Crosby will have his fullest immunity when he goes to the Olympics four months from now.

To Sum Up…

The vaccine fades after six months but still prevents significant and severe effects even after fading. And those who have both the virus and the vaccine might get a super immunity with antibodies hiding in our lymph nodes just waiting for war against the COVID antigens, according to the Rockefeller study. 

Now my opinion–you’ll get the virus or the vaccine. And, if you can get the booster, you may avoid the virus for another six months. And, if we keep upping the vaccinated population, then maybe, just maybe, we get a hold of this, so we won’t need boosters every 6-12 months.

But in the meantime, respect people’s space. Please and thanks.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.