Yes, a Small Number of Fully Vaccinated People Will Get COVID-19 Anyway
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently identified a small group of people who developed COVID-19—after they got their vaccine. But the apparantly tiny chance of getting the infection even if you’re fully vaccinated is not a reason to skip the shots.
Out of more than 76 million people in the U.S. who are fully vaccinated, about 5,800 people have gotten COVID-19, CDC officials told CNN, which amounts to less than a percent of cases. Of those 5,800 cases, 396 people (7%) required hospitalization, and 74 people died (1.3%). The majority of these “breakthrough infections” occurred in women (65%), 29% were asymptomatic, and about 40% of the cases occurred in people aged 60 or older, CNN says.
Although it’s not exactly ideal that people may get the infection after their vaccine, it’s not unexpected. Breakthrough infections were always a known (but anticipated to be rare) possibility with the COVID-19 vaccines, as they are with essentially every vaccine. In clinical trials the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines were both about 94% to 95% effective against symptomatic coronavirus infections, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 72% effective in the U.S. All three vaccines appeared to be highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19.
And that appears to be exactly what’s happening: The vast majority of fully vaccinated people have not developed COVID-19 infections and have not required hospitalization or died.
“No vaccine is 100%, but the mRNA vaccines are remarkably close to 100% against severe disease,” Tom Frieden, M.D., former director of the CDC, said on Twitter. “We shouldn’t be surprised at breakthrough infections, which so far have been mild.”
That said, there are still a lot of unknowns around this data. The number of breakthrough infections in a given population will depend on the efficacy of the vaccine but also the level of coronavirus cases in the population and the time its been since each person was vaccinated, Natalie E. Dean, Ph.D., assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida, explained on Twitter. It’s also important to remember that many of the people who are fully vaccinated likely haven’t been exposed to the virus, she said. All of these complexities that we don’t yet understand make it difficult to extrapolate too much from this small number of infections beyond the reassuringly small number itself.
It may be distressing to see that people who are fully vaccinated can still (very rarely) get COVID-19, but overall these numbers should actually be encouraging—and a reminder of how effective these vaccines really are. Along with other public health measures (such as wearing face masks in public, frequent handwashing, and social distancing), getting a COVID-19 vaccine when you can is a crucial way to reduce the toll of the pandemic and, eventually, return to some normal activities.
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