- The COVID-19 vaccines are extremely effective, but a few vaccinated people have gotten sick.
- “Breakthrough” infections are typically mild and might be less contagious than other cases.
- To prevent more infections, more of the population needs to get vaccinated, experts say.
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Karlee Camme was supposed to see her grandparents for the first time in more than a year. Everyone was fully vaccinated and ready to go, but two days before the visit she lost her ability to taste and smell.
Camme, 24, had gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine a month prior. But it turns out she had a mild case of COVID-19.
Looking back, she realized the runny nose and heavy tiredness she’d experienced earlier in the week might have been early symptoms. It was only the loss of taste and smell that signaled it was anything more than a common cold, leading Camme to get a COVID-19 test.
The COVID-19 vaccines have been extremely successful at preventing serious illnesses that could lead to hospitalizations and deaths. But no vaccine is 100% effective at preventing infection, Dr. Lisa V. Adams, an associate dean for global health at Dartmouth College, told Insider.
“We know there are and will be some breakthrough infections in individuals who are vaccinated – at least until we get to a point where there is very little virus circulating,” Adams said. “The good news is that their illness should be very mild.”
The vaccines are designed to prevent hospitalizations and deaths
In early July, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said new data indicated that 99.5% of COVID-19 deaths in the US were in unvaccinated people.
Out of more than 157 million fully vaccinated Americans, only 733 people had died of COVID-19 as of July 6, according to CDC data. At least 3,554 people had been hospitalized and survived. The CDC is no longer tracking mild breakthrough cases.
Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told Insider that even with a smattering of breakthrough infections taken into account, the vaccines had met the goal of protecting most people from severe illness.
“The goal of these vaccines is to keep you out of the hospital and keep you out of the ICU and keep you from dying. If you have a mild infection where you’re PCR positive and have essentially an asymptomatic infection, that’s fine,” Offit said, referring to a type of COVID-19 test.
‘Breakthrough’ cases might cause some symptoms, but they’re usually mild
Emerging data suggests many breakthrough infections are so mild that they might as well be asymptomatic.
A recent analysis of breakthrough infections in the UK indicated that the top symptoms of Delta-variant COVID-19 were a runny nose and a headache, largely because most people mingling and exposed to the virus were younger or fully vaccinated.
Camme, for instance, was not sick enough to suspect she had COVID-19 at first.
Masha Gessen, 54, a staff writer for The New Yorker, also got sick despite being fully vaccinated. Their illness was fairly mild, they wrote for the magazine – their symptoms included a runny nose, itchy eyes, fatigue, and loss of smell, and they faded in about a week, they said.
In June, The New England Journal of Medicine described two similar cases that both resolved within a week of the people testing positive: a 51-year-old woman who had a sore throat, congestion, a headache, and loss of smell; and a 65-year-old woman who was also congested, fatigued, and headachy.
Travis Dagenais, 35, from Boston, told Boston 25 News that he got COVID-19 in early July, two months after getting his second shot of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. He said his symptoms started as a cold, then developed into a fever that kept him up at night – but he dreaded to think what might have happened had he been unvaccinated.
“We have to realize that 94 or 95% is not 100%. This vaccine is not a shield. This vaccine is not an invincibility force,” Dagenais told Boston 25 News. “To have gone through what I went through, I can’t imagine what it would have felt like without the vaccine.”
Tony Smith, 31, from Brooklyn, New York, told The New York Times that he developed COVID-19 for the second time on Sunday, months after getting his second dose of Pfizer’s vaccine; he said it felt “like the crinkling of aluminum foil in my chest.” He tweeted on Monday: “The symptoms I’m feeling right now vs. the symptoms I felt when I got COVID are noooooooooooothing lol. That’s the vaccine working!”
Less contagious to others
Even though Camme is still experiencing some symptoms of her breakthrough infection, she sees a silver lining in the fact that she didn’t pass the virus to her loved ones.
“My partner didn’t even get the vaccine and he didn’t get the virus, and we were sleeping in the same bed until I tested positive,” Camme said. “That’s the thing – you may still get it, but the chance of you having to feel guilty about spreading it is a little bit less.”
People who get COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated typically have much less virus in their systems, meaning they could be less contagious, studies from Israel have found. The articles haven’t been peer-reviewed, but the findings are promising.
More studies from Israel have suggested that Pfizer’s vaccine may be 94% effective at preventing asymptomatic infections, reducing the risk of someone unknowingly transmitting the virus.
Vaccinating the majority of people is key
More people need to get vaccinated, Offit said. He estimated that 80% of the population would need to be immunized – through vaccinations or infections – to get the US out of the woods.
The worst of Camme’s symptoms started a week after she tested positive. She felt winded walking from her car to work, stopping to catch her breath. She’s also been nauseous and has had migraines, chills, and night sweats for nearly a month since her COVID-19 test, she said.
But Camme has no doubt her vaccine protected her from a more severe case and the risk of so-called long COVID.
“I’m an advocate for the vaccine,” she said. “The only way that we’re going to get through this is if everybody or majority of the population gets vaccinated. I think that’s the only step forward that we can take to being a more normal world again.”