Molecular and Clinical Epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 Infection among Vaccinated and Unvaccinated Individuals in a Large Healthcare Organization from New Jersey

New Jersey was among the first states impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with one of the highest overall death rates in the nation. Nevertheless, relatively few reports have been published focusing specifically on New Jersey. Here we report on molecular, clinical, and epidemiologic observations, from the largest healthcare network in the state, in a cohort of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals with laboratory-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection. We conducted molecular surveillance of SARS-CoV-2-positive nasopharyngeal swabs collected in nine hospitals from December 2020 through June 2022, using both whole genome sequencing (WGS) and a real-time RT-PCR screening assay targeting spike protein mutations found in variants of concern (VOCs) within our region. De-identified clinical data were obtained retrospectively, including demographics, COVID-19 vaccination status, ICU admission, ventilator support, mortality, and medical history. Statistical analyses were performed to identify associations between SARS-CoV-2 variants, vaccination status, clinical outcomes, and medical risk factors. A total of 5007 SARS-CoV-2-positive nasopharyngeal swabs were successfully screened and/or sequenced. Variant screening identified three predominant VOCs, including Alpha (n = 714), Delta (n = 1877), and Omicron (n = 1802). Omicron isolates were further sub-typed as BA.1 (n = 899), BA.2 (n = 853), or BA.4/BA.5 (n = 50); the remaining 614 isolates were classified as “Other”. Approximately 31.5% (1577/5007) of the samples were associated with vaccine breakthrough infections, which increased in frequency following the emergence of Delta and Omicron. Severe clinical outcomes included ICU admission (336/5007 = 6.7%), ventilator support (236/5007 = 4.7%), and mortality (430/5007 = 8.6%), with increasing age being the most significant contributor to each (p < 0.001). Unvaccinated individuals accounted for 79.7% (268/336) of ICU admissions, 78.3% (185/236) of ventilator cases, and 74.4% (320/430) of deaths. Highly significant (p < 0.001) increases in mortality were observed in individuals with cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, and hyperlipidemia, but not with obesity, thyroid disease, or respiratory disease. Significant differences (p < 0.001) in clinical outcomes were also noted between SARS-CoV-2 variants, including Delta, Omicron BA.1, and Omicron BA.2. Vaccination was associated with significantly improved clinical outcomes in our study, despite an increase in breakthrough infections associated with waning immunity, greater antigenic variability, or both. Underlying comorbidities contributed significantly to mortality in both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, with increasing risk based on the total number of comorbidities. Real-time RT-PCR-based screening facilitated timely identification of predominant variants using a minimal number of spike protein mutations, with faster turnaround time and reduced cost compared to WGS. Continued evolution of SARS-CoV-2 variants will likely require ongoing surveillance for new VOCs, with real-time assessment of clinical impact.


Other Contributors

José R Mediavilla 1, Tara Lozy 1 2, Annie Lee 1, Justine Kim 3, Veronica W Kan 1, Elizabeth Titova 1, Ashish Amin 3, Michael C Zody 4, André Corvelo 4, Dayna M Oschwald 4, Amy Baldwin 4, Samantha Fennessey 4, Jerry M Zuckerman 5 6, Thomas Kirn 7, Liang Chen 1 6, Yanan Zhao 1 6, Kar Fai Chow 3 8, Tom Maniatis 4, David S Perlin 1 6, Barry N Kreiswirth 1 6

1 Center for Discovery and Innovation, Hackensack Meridian Health, Nutley, NJ 07110, USA.
2 Department of Pediatrics, Hackensack University Medical Center, Hackensack, NJ 07601, USA.
3 Hackensack Meridian Health Biorepository, Hackensack, NJ 07601, USA.
4 New York Genome Center, New York, NY 10013, USA.
5 Department of Patient Safety and Quality, Hackensack Meridian Health, Edison, NJ 08837, USA.
6 Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, Nutley, NJ 07110, USA.
7 Public Health and Environmental Laboratories, New Jersey Department of Health, Ewing, NJ 08628, USA.
8 Department of Pathology, Hackensack University Medical Center, Hackensack, NJ 07601, USA.