The Rise Of Breakthrough COVID-19 Cases Like Mine And What You Need To Know
Update: One month post Covid I’m still struggling with fatigue and asthma. As evidence mounts that people with COVID breakthrough infections exhibit similar viral loads following Delta variant infection, I am hoping that I do not have long haul COVID for more months to come. The CDC has also since announced that they are “prepared to offer booster shots for all Americans beginning the week of September 20 and starting 8 months after an individual’s second dose.” Given I contracted COVID 4.5 months after my second Moderna dose, it seems that efficacy of the vaccines may be wearing off sooner than expected — thus explaining why there are rising numbers of breakthrough cases. This again reinforces my message in this article because if breakthrough cases are as “rare” as being portrayed in media headlines then there wouldn’t be a sudden roll out of vaccine booster shots. The reality is the highly contagious Delta variant is able to break through the vaccines. While vaccines are working to reduce hospitalizations and deaths significantly in COVID breakthrough cases, everyone needs to be wearing a mask to stop the spread. Full/original story below:
This week, my husband and I were shocked to discover that we were both diagnosed with breakthrough COVID-19 cases. I had been thrilled to get my second dose of the Moderna vaccine for my birthday in March. So when I started having mild cold symptoms last week, I almost dismissed it. But just to be on the safe side I got a COVID-19 test and was surprised to see that I had tested positive. One day later my husband, who is also fully vaccinated, developed the same symptoms.
WHY YOU NEED TO WEAR A MASK
I’m not a doctor, but I am an expert in communications and messaging for national policy issues. As I researched our breakthrough cases, I came to a surprising — and disturbing — realization. A critical message is being largely missed in recent media headlines as the Delta variant surges: You absolutely can get COVID-19 if you are fully vaccinated, and breakthrough infections are not as rare as we think. More importantly, even if you get COVID-19 the vaccine still reduces symptom severity, length, and prevents hospitalization and death. But in order to stop the spread and beat this pandemic, everyone still needs to wear a mask, even if you are vaccinated.
DELTA VARIANT IS VERY CONTAGIOUS
The Delta variant is extremely contagious and even vaccinated individuals can catch and spread it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Delta variant is as transmissible as chickenpox for unvaccinated AND vaccinated folks — averaging a spread of eight to nine people for each infected person (versus the original COVID-19 strain which spread to an average of two people).
BREAKTHROUGH CASES ARE RISING
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Director Barbara Ferrer reported that 26% of all new COVID-19 cases in July were in fully vaccinated people — up from 20% in June. Keep in mind Los Angeles County is home to over 10 million people, which is more than a quarter of California’s total population. Data from the California Department of Public Health for the week of July 31 shows the statewide average daily case rate for vaccinated Californians was 7 per 100,000 (double what it was two weeks earlier) and for unvaccinated it was 33 per 100,000. According to the CDC 65.8% of California’s population has received at least one vaccine dose, and nationally 58.5% of Americans have received a first dose.
Combatting pandemic misinformation when data is changing by the day is certainly challenging. However, it’s critical to share clear and accurate information when building trust with the public. One of my frustrations this week as I recovered was seeing repeat headlines that COVID-19 breakthrough cases among the vaccinated are “very rare.” In fact, the New York Times and NPR just this week ran headlines reiterating that it’s still “rare,” while citing incomplete CDC and state data collection compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The CDC currently monitors hospitalizations and deaths among fully vaccinated individuals with COVID-19. But it stopped monitoring breakthrough infections as of May. Instead, the CDC is now relying on state data, but only 24 states provide any data on breakthrough cases. And only 15 states are actively reporting cases. Yet the CDC, many news outlets, and even the White House are continuing to report that breakthrough cases are “rare” and “unlikely.”
I GOT COVID OUTDOORS
This is why everyone — including those vaccinated — needs to be wearing a mask indoors. I would even add that masks should be worn outdoors when you can’t maintain six feet of distance. After tracing where I got COVID-19 this week, I concluded that it had to be from a busy outdoor dining patio because I have limited exposure and always wear a mask indoors. Australian health officials are warning it no longer takes up to 15 minutes to pass on the deadly virus, as it can be a “fleeting moment” of just five to 10 seconds as a stranger walks by.
VACCINES KEEP US OUT OF THE HOSPITAL
Just to be clear: vaccines are working — they are nearly 100% effective at preventing hospitalization and death. According to U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, 97% of hospitalizations are in unvaccinated people and 99.5% of deaths are in unvaccinated. As someone who does not enjoy being hospitalized, I have been relieved this week that my COVID-19 vaccine seems to be doing its job at keeping my symptoms mild — sore throat, runny nose, headache, and tired enough to use this as an excuse to binge-watch the Olympics (but well enough to write this article).
VACCINATED PEOPLE CAN STILL SPREAD COVID
So how did I get COVID-19 if I’m vaccinated? According to CDC, the highly contagious Delta variant is now the cause of 93% of new U.S. COVID-19 cases (up from 50% just four weeks ago) and can lead to vaccine breakthrough infections. This means that while vaccinated people are much less likely to get sick, they still are able to contract and spread the virus. And as the number of people who are vaccinated goes up, the number of breakthrough cases is also expected to increase, even as the vaccines remain highly effective. The highest spread of cases and severe outcomes is happening in places with low vaccination rates, which means everyone needs to get vaccinated ASAP as the Delta variant is spreading widely.
VACCINATED? STILL NEED TO WEAR A MASK!
We are all exhausted by this pandemic and want to resume our lives again. But we must be careful about messaging that vaccinated people don’t need to worry about COVID-19, or else we run the risk that the importance of mask-wearing will not be taken seriously and the Delta variant will skyrocket. And while yes my COVID-19 symptoms are less severe thanks to my vaccine, trust me, you don’t want to get this virus.
PROTECT THE KIDS
As we continue to pursue greater vaccination coverage across the country, we must continue to wear masks. Asymptomatic people, especially those who are vaccinated, are likely to not even get tested and still spread the Delta variant. And there are still people who legitimately can’t get the COVID-19 vaccine for serious medical reasons, along with many children who have not been vaccinated and are returning to schools across the country this week for in-person learning. As a population, we must wear masks to protect us all.
This article is dedicated to my sister who was diagnosed, battled, and passed away from cancer all during the initial California COVID-19 lockdown in Spring 2020. And to all those who have mourned the loss of a loved one to COVID-19 during this pandemic.
Lauren Michele, M.S., is the Founder of Policy in Motion and the Executive Director of Left Coast Voter. She is a policy consultant and communications strategist.