As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, there's been a lot of talk about breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated individuals. The rampant transmission of the COVID Delta varient means that breakthrough infections are on the rise.
The idea of breakthough infections contributes to widespread confusion about the true efficacy of vaccines. A great many people expected the COVID-19 vaccine to offer full protection from symptomatic infection. The truth is, no credible scientist has ever claimed that COVID-19 vaccines prevent every person from getting sick. The goal when developing the vaccine was to lessen the severity of the illness and reduce hospitalizations and death.
Decades before COVID-19 swept across the globe, I learned about breakthrough infections the hard way. In the early '90s, when I was in sixth grade at Woodstock Elementary School in Murray, I awoke in the middle of the night feeling feverish. I will never forget gasping when I turned on my bedroom light because I was covered in a blotchy red rash.
I was days away from flying to Alabama to serve as the flower girl in my cousin's wedding. Instead, I washed up in the doctor's office and learned that I had the measles. My mom—a registered nurse—was quite upset. I recall her saying to the doctor, "But I had her vaccinated. How could this happen?"
My pediatrician explained that no vaccine is 100% effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that two doses of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine are 97% effective at preventing symptomatic disease. I just happened to be one of the unlucky 3% not fully protected.
My doctor said that because I was fully vaccinated, my measles infection would likely be mild. He was right—my fever lasted a day. I felt a little tired and had a rash for about a week but never experienced the dry cough, upset stomach or marked eye inflammation that often accompanies more severe cases.
Upon reflection, I don't recall feeling that bad. I remember watching TV, doing my homework and eating a McDonald's cheeseburger my dad was gracious enough to procure for me. I almost always lose my appetite when I am sick, so feeling well enough to eat was proof that my infection was mild.
In a July 27 NPR interview, public health analyst Dr. Leana Wen compared a COVID-19 vaccine to "a very good raincoat." Depending on weather conditions, you may still get wet, but a solid raincoat is still very protective against getting soaked to the bone.
If you know someone sick with COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated, please consider the severity of their infection before proclaiming the vaccine doesn't work. On NPR, Wen expanded on her vaccine-as-raincoat metaphor noting that unvaccinated individuals are creating the stormy weather conditions that impact the vaccinated.
Getting wet is not the same as getting soaked. And a breakthrough COVID infection that causes congestion, mild fever and fatigue—or even one that requires a short course of supplemental oxygen—is not the same as a case that results in sedation, intubation and death.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a constantly evolving situation. Scientists are learning more about the efficacy of currently available vaccines every day. One thing that is indisputable is data about hospitalization rates. Intermountain Healthcare infectious disease doctor Eddie Stenehjem said in a July 13 Salt Lake Tribune article that 95% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Utah were unvaccinated.
The New York Times recently profiled a 42-year-old Provo man named Russ Greene who opted not to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Greene ultimately contracted COVID-19 and ended up requiring breathing support in the ICU. Greene's wife, Mindy, expressed regret about deciding not to get herself and her family vaccinated.
There are four generations of nurses on my mom's side of the family. I grew up steeped in stories about the lengths that healthcare workers go to ensure that their patients stay healthy. Every health-care worker in my family has enthusiastically recommended the COVID-19 vaccine.
Vaccines are not perfect, but infectious disease specialists around the world agree that the COVID-19 vaccine is still the best possible tool we currently have to keep ourselves healthy and safe, and to not overwhelm our health-care workers.
Back in January, my nurse sister did a rotation on the COVID-19 ward at the Utah hospital where she works. She told me of a sign on the wall that read, "Employees must stop crying before they return to work." The sign featured a drawing of a ghoulish red eye spewing red tears.
Back then, very few Utahns were vaccinated because so few had access to the vaccine. Today, access to the COVID-19 vaccine is not an issue for most Americans. And yet, that ghoulish red eye still hangs on the wall of the hospital. The virus rages on, and people like Russ Greene who've resisted or refused the vaccine can find themselves critically ill and need to be treated by health-care workers.
Intermountain Healthcare recently reported that 91% of all COVID patients who required breathing support in the ICU were unvaccinated.
I often wonder if my brush with the measles would have resulted in a stay in intensive care had I not been vaccinated. A splotchy rash and some mild fatigue is so much more manageable than what could have been.
Private Eye is off this week. Jenny Poplar is a former City Weekly intern who now resides in New Orleans. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.