COVID-19 lung X-rays show difference between vaccinated, unvaccinated patients

A hospital in St. Louis shared lung X-ray photos of COVID-19 patients, showing the difference between one who had been fully vaccinated and one who was not, in an effort to show how effective the vaccines are in preventing severe illness amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. 

Dr. Ghassan Kamel, director of the Medical ICU at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, said the vast majority of his COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. Furthermore, many of the recent unvaccinated patients are "in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and they usually don’t have significant medical problems or medical history."

"We are seeing young, healthy individuals who are getting sick enough to be in the ICU," Kamel said. 

The doctor could not share specific health history regarding the two X-ray cases to protect patient information, but noted how the X-ray of the unvaccinated individual is more clouded in white. This indicates "more advanced or significant lung disease" that could be the result of a viral infection, a bacterial infection or even fluid on the lungs, Kamel said. 

In a COVID-19 patient, as was the case in the X-ray, "it could be due to ongoing inflammation of the lungs due to the viral infection itself," he added.

Treatment is different from patient to patient. But Kamel said this case could require oxygen or the need for mechanical ventilation, to potentially being placed on life support.

By contrast, Kamel explained how the vaccinated patient’s X-ray image has more black area — which shows lungs while they are filled with air. The patient is what’s known as a rare "breakthrough" case, or when a fully vaccinated person gets infected with the virus. 

side by side covid lung white background

Lung X-rays provided by SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital show a COVID-19 patient who was fully vaccinated (L), alongside a COVID-19 patient who was not vaccinated (R). (Photo via SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital)

Health officials say a small number of such cases are expected. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 1% of breakthrough cases have led to hospitalization or death.

In St. Louis, Kamel said his team has not seen a fully vaccinated COVID-19 patient requiring intensive care or advanced life support — further fueling his urgent message for Americans who have still not received the shot to consider its effectiveness at preventing severe illness and death. 

"We’re seeing a lot of patients who are sick and ending up in the ICU, and they wish that they had received the vaccine," Kamel said, noting the ongoing spread of the highly contagious delta variant nationwide.

"I would urge young people, healthy people, if you have the vaccine available to you — please get vaccinated," he continued. "The hospitals are getting full again. We are seeing a lot of young patients on life support. We would like to prevent that, and we have a way to prevent that, which is the vaccine."

The doctor’s message comes as the U.S. faces surging COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations fueled by the delta variant. The country is now averaging more than 70,000 new cases a day, which is above the peak last summer when no vaccines were available, data from Johns Hopkins University shows. 

Though U.S. vaccination rates have increased in recent weeks, millions of Americans have still resisted getting the shot. Health officials continue to try and overcome the skepticism to the vaccine, saying it’s the ticket to ending the pandemic.

The latest COVID-19 surge also prompted the CDC to recommend that fully vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in regions with substantial to high transmission rates. The agency cited new data on the delta variant showing that vaccinated people who got breakthrough infections carried about the same amount of the coronavirus as those who did not get the shots.

Still, the CDC notes that COVID-19 vaccines are still highly effective against the delta variant at preventing serious illness and death.

President Joe Biden, speaking Tuesday from the White House, renewed his push for Americans to get vaccinated and called the pandemic "largely preventable."

"What’s different about this surge compared to previous ones is that we have the tools to prevent this rise in cases from shutting down our businesses, our schools and our society as we saw what happened last year, " Biden said.

"This is a tragedy," he continued. "People will die who don’t have to die. The data is absolutely clear. We have a pandemic of the unvaccinated."

RELATED: COVID-19 Delta variant symptoms: What we know and what to look for

This story was reported from Cincinnati.