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Breaking through

How often do fully vaccinated people get COVID-19?

Article Author: Johnny Woodhouse

Article Date:

woman holding a thermometer

A groundbreaking new discovery is known as a breakthrough. But when fully vaccinated individuals catch a so-called breakthrough infection of COVID-19, it’s no cause for celebration. These cases may occur as soon as 14 days after a person receives the final dose of a vaccine.

This poses the question: Why are fully vaccinated people still susceptible to the virus?

Shalika Katugaha, MD, system director of Infectious Diseases for Baptist Health, said breakthrough infections are not a big surprise to doctors and researchers who specialize in this field.

“When the FDA initially set criteria for developing the COVID-19 vaccine, it actually said the shots should prevent or decrease severity in at least 50% of people who get it,” Dr. Katugaha explained. “You might think a 50% efficacy is really low, but it is actually comparable to the life-saving annual influenza vaccine.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the COVID-19 vaccines approved or authorized for emergency use in the United States are highly effective at preventing severe disease and death. But some fully vaccinated people will become infected and be able to spread it to others, especially with the surging spread of the delta variant.

Common concern or really rare?

Breakthrough infections are estimated to occur in around 0.02% of all vaccinated people, according to the CDC. Fully vaccinated people who get COVID-19 are less likely to experience severe symptoms, hospitalization, and death than those who are unvaccinated.

“The goal of any vaccine is to prevent serious illness, not necessarily to prevent infection. That’s why the vaccines are doing what they were designed to do, which is save lives,” Dr. Katugaha said.

Quicker to clear

Another basic tenet of breakthrough infections is that they don’t typically hang around very long in those who have gotten the shots. That’s because a fully vaccinated person’s army of antibodies is quick to react to the invading virus.

“The amount of the virus in the body decreases faster in vaccinated people, causing them to be infectious for a shorter period of time. That means less time during which they can spread it to other people,” Dr. Katugaha said.

Another upside of being vaccinated: if you get the virus, you’re half as likely to suffer from long COVID-19 symptoms, according to a recent study out of the United Kingdom.

Breakthroughs and boosters

The rapid spread of COVID-19, fueled recently by the highly contagious delta variant, is one reason the U.S. government plans to offer booster shots to all eligible Americans eight months after their second vaccine dose.

“We’re seeing that vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna are more than 90% effective against COVID-19 after six months, but efficacy appears to wane after eight months,” Dr. Katugaha said. “Getting the additional shot will protect Americans and boost immunity in the period when efficacy wanes.”

Preventing breakthroughs

The best treatment for COVID-19 is prevention, so experts urge everyone to continue interventions that help reduce the transmission of the virus, like getting vaccinated, wearing a mask in public, washing your hands, and practicing social distancing. Also, pay attention to transmission rates in your area before deciding whether to venture to closed or crowded places. When in doubt, consult your health care provider for expert advice.

COVID-19 vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and your family from the virus, reduce community spread and help prevent new variants from emerging. Visit Baptist Health’s COVID-19 Information Center for questions about the virus, or visit baptistjax.com/covid19vaccine for more information on vaccines.

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