COVID-19 breakthrough circumstances stay unusual amid a extremely contagious Delta variant
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The delta variant of the COVID-19 virus appears to break through protective vaccines faster than previous strains, an analysis by the Wall Street Journal found, although infections remain only a tiny fraction of the total cases among those fully vaccinated and symptoms tend to be milder.
U.S. states counted at least 193,204 breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals between January 1 and early August, according to data provided to the Journal by health officials in 44 states and Washington, DC. That number represents 0.1% of the 136 million or more fully vaccinated people in these states and the capital.
The total number of breakthrough cases is likely higher, public health experts said, as fully vaccinated people with asymptomatic infections are unlikely to be tested for COVID-19. In addition, several states said the data is not available while others are only tracking groundbreaking cases that lead to hospital admissions or death.
The United States has counted approximately 193,204 so-called “breakthrough cases” since January 1 and early August (AP Photo / Frank Augstein, swimming pool)
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Of the 44 health departments that responded to the journal’s inquiries, 28 of them also split the number of cases they had been tracking since early July, when the Delta variant was found to be the dominant strain of the virus.
At least 11 states, including California and Mississippi, had more than half of their reported breakthrough cases between July 1 and early August, suggesting that the rise in the delta caused more breakthroughs than previous tribes. In at least six states, including Maryland and Minnesota, more than a third of breakthrough cases were reported during this period.
Health officials said breakthrough cases represented a tiny fraction of COVID-19 infections and resulted in very few hospitalizations or deaths.
Health officials say the milder cases are evidence that the vaccines are working well, though they add that some people have misinterpreted the higher breakthrough rate in the Delta variant as evidence that they are ineffective.
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“Let’s be honest, breakthrough infections are kind of fine,” said Larry Corey, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “You get infected and have a cold, maybe a high fever for 24 hours. But you don’t end up in the hospital and you don’t have a 2.5 percent chance of dying by the time you get hospitalized.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped tracking most groundbreaking cases in late April and instead chose to count those that led to hospital admissions or death. The agency is now tracking groundbreaking cases in small cohorts of health workers that provide more representative data, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said in an interview this month.
Walid Gellad, a drug policy researcher and doctor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said the CDC shouldn’t have stopped pursuing all breakthrough cases because it was harder to know if asymptomatic transmission is fueling the pandemic.
As of January 1, there have been 16,578,509 cases of COVID-19 in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University. The seven-day moving average of new daily COVID-19 cases rose to 130,710 on Monday, the highest since February and from 13,118 in late June, as the Johns Hopkins data showed, as the highly contagious strain has spread mainly among people unvaccinated.
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“Part of it is simple math: we can and should expect that as the total number of cases increases, the number of breakthroughs will increase,” said David Dowdy, an infectious disease doctor at Johns Hopkins. Behavior is also changing: “We all interact more closely with one another than we did a few months ago.”
A UK study of people who tested positive for COVID-19, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in July, found the vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE was 94% effective at treating symptomatic COVID-19 from the previous one Prevent dominant alpha variant, compared with 88% versus the delta variant. The study did not find any reduction in the vaccine’s ability to protect against serious illness and hospitalization for Delta variant infections.
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Doctors who see COVID-19 patients in high breakthrough states said vaccinated patients who become infected usually have mild symptoms that do not result in hospitalization and recover within a week or two.
“All we really see when breakthrough vaccine cases hit the hospital are people who are over 80 years old or have compromised immune systems,” said Jorge Bernett, infectious disease specialist at John Muir Health in Walnut Creek, California. “Basically anyone who has a ventilator is not vaccinated.”
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