Over the past few months, a steady drumbeat of headlines has highlighted the surprising real-world effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, especially those created by mRNA vaccines. pfizer-biontech and modern. Vaccines, study after study has shownare more than 90 percent effective in preventing the worst outcomes, including hospitalization and death.
But along with this good news have been rare reports of severe COVID in people who were fully vaccinated.
For example, on June 3, Napa County announced that a fully vaccinated woman, more than a month before her second Moderna shot, had died after being hospitalized with COVID. The woman, who was over 65 years of age and had underlying medical conditions, had tested positive for alpha version, which was first identified in Britain.
Although these cases are tragic, they are uncommon – and not unexpected.
“I am very sad that he had such a serious illness that he actually died,” said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a vaccine specialist at Vanderbilt University. But, he added, “we expected the occasional breakthrough transition to occur.”
Scientists said that such cases should not prevent people from getting vaccinated. “There is no vaccine in history that has ever been 100 percent effective,” said Dr. Paul Offitt, director of the Center for Vaccine Education at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “This is your best chance of surviving a serious, serious illness. But as is true for everything in medicine, it is not perfect.”
Severe COVID is rare in people who have been fully vaccinated. In a paper published last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had received reports of 10,262 Success Transitions till 30 April. That’s a tiny fraction of the 101 million Americans who had been vaccinated to that date, although the agency noted that it probably represents a “substantial low” of breakthrough infections.
Of those successful cases, 10 percent of patients were hospitalized and 2 percent died – and in some of those cases, patients were hospitalized or died from something unrelated to COVID-19 . The median age of those who died was 82 years.
Older adults, who are at higher risk for complications of COVID, may also be more likely to develop breakthrough infections as they are known to mount a weakened immune response to vaccines. People who are immunocompromised or have other chronic health conditions may also be at increased risk.
Some types – notably beta, which was first identified in South Africa – may be more likely to survive vaccine-induced protection. But beta is not currently common in the United States, Dr. Schaffner said.
The alpha version infecting a Napa County woman is highly contagious, but the vaccines provide good protection against it — as well as against the original strain of the virus.
“While exceptionally rare, stories about breakthrough infections can be confusing to the public,” Napa County Public Health Officer, Dr. Karen Relucio, said in an emailed statement. “We know that when stories like these come out, it can be tempting for some people to question the efficacy of vaccines.”
But vaccines are highly effective, he emphasized. In Napa County, the rate of success infection among fully vaccinated people is just 0.04 percent, he said.
Across the state, the rate is even lower. According to the California Department of Health, as of June 2 there was 5,723 success cases among more than 17.5 million fully vaccinated residents, at a rate of 0.032 percent. Of those cases, only 7 percent are known to be hospitalized and 0.8 percent lead to death. Even in those cases, it is not clear whether the primary cause of death was Covid.
Decisive infection is likely to decrease due to more people being vaccinated and community transmission rates declining. “The virus will get to infect fewer and fewer people – it will be harder for the virus to work its way through the population,” Dr. Schaffner said. “These are great vaccines. For vaccines to work optimally – on an individual basis and on a community basis – as many people as possible should be vaccinated.”