Although the COVID-19 vaccine has been widely available since spring, so-called “breakthrough” cases, where someone contracts the coronavirus after being vaccinated, are spiking in parts of the country including Arizona. Nearly 18 percent of new COVID-19 infections in September were among vaccinated people. The majority of them received the Pfizer vaccine, although substantial numbers of breakthrough cases happened after receiving the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, in mid-April, 495 breakthrough cases occurred in Arizona. Now, there are 49,962. Of those, 376 people have died, although their cause of death wasn’t specified.
A study that came out on October 29 in the British medical journal The Lancet found that COVID-19 is being spread by vaccinated people. “Vaccination reduces the risk of delta variant infection and accelerates viral clearance. Nonetheless, fully vaccinated individuals with breakthrough infections have peak viral load similar to unvaccinated cases and can efficiently transmit infection in household settings, including to fully vaccinated contacts.”
The most vaccinated state in the country, Vermont, is currently experiencing a COVID-19 surge. In San Diego County, more vaccinated people are testing positive than unvaccinated. And in Illinois, 77.7 percent of the 117 COVID-19 deaths two weeks ago were from vaccinated people. But a study in the European Journal of Epidemiology looked at 68 countries, including 2,947 counties across the U.S., found that increases in COVID-19 are not related to vaccination rates.
The federal government initially told people that the COVID-19 vaccine would prevent transmission between people. “Slow the spread” was a common slogan. Then-ADHS Director Cara Christ said on June 18, “The extremely rare incidence of these breakthrough COVID-19 infections are reason to get more Arizonans vaccinated. The more people who are protected against COVID-19, the less chance the virus can spread to the one out of 20 people who can be a breakthrough case.” She said that over 95 percent of Arizona’s COVID-19 cases were in unvaccinated people.
Now, the government is saying the vaccines’ effectiveness wanes after a short period of time so people need an additional shot: the booster. This is a change from the government’s position in early July, when the CDC and FDA released a joint statement saying booster shots are not needed.
Amesh Adalja, a doctor and infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Roll Call that everyone is going to eventually get COVID-19 regardless of vaccination status. “It’s likely that everybody will probably get infected with COVID-19 [at some point] because it’s an endemic respiratory virus,” he said. “The goal is to make sure that at that time, that infection occurs after you’ve been vaccinated so it’s mild.”
However, some vaccinated people are dying of COVID-19. An article at The Tucson Sentinel written by Lori Robertson of factcheck.org analyzed the increase in breakthrough numbers. She noted that deaths in England from unvaccinated patients are still three to five times higher than that of vaccinated patients. She also observed that breakthrough cases are higher in older people who are vaccinated than younger people who are vaccinated. They’re growing faster, too.
Unfortunately, the CDC stopped collecting on breakthrough cases unless they result in hospitalization or death. And only 15 states track this data regularly. When the CDC was tracking this information earlier this year, it reported 10,262 cases between January 1 and April 30.
Dr. Randall Olsen, medical director of molecular diagnostics at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, criticized the CDC’s decision to stop tracking this information.
“They are missing a large portion of the infected,” he said. “If you’re limiting yourself to a small subpopulation with only hospitalizations and deaths, you risk a biased viewpoint.”
The CDC appears to be still providing a general overview of the rates of COVID-19 by vaccination status. A graph shows that the rate of infection by the unvaccinated started sharply declining in September, while the rate of infection by the vaccinated started climbing in August.
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