With the highly contagious omicron variant continuing to sweep the nation, the number of active coronavirus cases has skyrocketed to over 700,00 per day. While the majority of this spike in cases can be attributed to those who have not been vaccinated, thanks in part to omicron, there has been an increase in breakthrough cases. So, why are so many vaccinated people getting COVID, and is it all thanks to Omicron? Here’s everything you need to know.
Why Are So Many Vaccinated People Getting COVID?
There are a couple of factors that are at play when it comes to understanding why so many vaccinated people are getting COVID. First, and most importantly, is the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Early studies on omicron found that the variant came from South Africa and to some extent the U.K. and Netherlands. These studies suggested that omicron was both more transmissible and less severe than other variants. There is now an enormous amount of data from all over the world on the rate of transmission, which agree that one omicron-infected person will, in turn, infect roughly between three and five people. This makes it an astonishingly infectious disease, and we have seen that infectiousness throughout the world, with a case count chart that looks like straight-line ascent.
Then there is the matter of severity. While omicron has proven to be much more contagious, it has proven to be much less severe than other variants. This means that although cases have skyrocketed, hospitalizations, severe disease, and deaths have not increased equally. This is especially true for those who have been fully vaccinated, meaning that they have had both a vaccine and a booster. However, no vaccine is 100% effective, which means that given a more contagious variant, the likelihood of breakthrough cases is expected to increase.
Two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine still offer strong protection against serious illness from omicron. While those initial doses aren’t very good at blocking omicron infection, boosters, particularly with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, rev up levels of the antibodies to help fend off infection.
One area that has conjured up much confusion is the term “breakthrough case.” What does that mean, and what constitutes a breakthrough? Let’s take a look.
What Counts As a COVID Breakthrough Case?
While the term breakthrough case has been around since the widespread availability of vaccines, breakthrough cases of COVID-19 seem to be more prevalent than ever. But what does that term mean, and are breakthrough cases serious?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a “breakthrough” case is when a person tests positive for COVID-19 at least two weeks after becoming fully vaccinated. Now, the term “fully vaccinated” is important here because that meaning has changed in recent months. Currently, someone who is fully vaccinated is someone who has received either both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as well as a booster.
Breakthrough cases are, as previously noted, are to be expected. Again, it’s important to note that while the COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective, no vaccine is 100% effective. However, the vaccines are still highly effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death, even in the face of omicron.
That said, the growing number of breakthrough cases is something to keep in mind. As omicron continues to spike cases near a million per day, the chances of breakthroughs increases as well. But, just how many vaccinated people are getting COVID?
How Many Vaccinated People Are Getting COVID?
The CDC is currently collecting data on vaccine breakthrough infections. However, since many breakthrough cases are asymptomatic or mild and aren’t reported by people. This means that the total number of reported breakthrough cases likely represents an undercount. That being said, the one metric that the CDC is paying close attention to is the breakthrough cases that result in hospitalization and death.
The CDC reports that an unvaccinated person is 10 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 and 20 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than people who are vaccinated. To better understand these numbers, let’s take a look at a specific area, and examine the numbers of breakthrough cases versus unvaccinated cases.
On a national level, the hospitalization picture is incomplete, as not all states publicly track patient vaccination status, and those that do aren’t always consistent with each other and therefore can’t be compared side by side. However, of the states that do track and report vaccination status, the data is clear.
In Kentucky, for example, as of January 13, 2022, there were a total of 66 inpatient hospitalizations for COVID-19. Of those, 67% percent were unvaccinated, whereas 33% were fully vaccinated. If you look at critical care and intensive care unit (ICU) patients, there were a total of 13. Of the 13, only four were fully vaccinated.
In short, people who are fully vaccinated and boosted can experience breakthrough cases and exhibit symptoms of the illness. But the chances of contracting a serious illness remain far lower compared to unvaccinated people.
Bottom Line: Why Are So Many Vaccinated People Getting COVID, and What Can We Do About It?
So, what is the bottom line? Why are so many vaccinated people getting COVID lately? The rise in breakthrough cases can be attributed largely to the omicron variant. While other factors such as loosening of public safety measures, pandemic fatigue, and the waning of vaccine immunity over time can play a role, breakthrough cases, at least in the United States, are mostly due to this new variant.
Still, vaccination remains highly effective at preventing severe COVID illnesses, even against omicron. While omicron is much more contagious, it is also less severe than other variants, particularly the fully vaccinated. This combination means that most Americans, including children and vaccinated adults, face little personal risk from omicron.
However, it’s important to note that your risk is not zero, even for those that are generally healthy. But it is very small. Every day, people live with small risks, be they from the seasonal flu and other illnesses or from riding in a vehicle, playing sports, or other activities.
For the unvaccinated, the situation is very different. Omicron is still severe enough that it will lead to debilitating illness and death for many unvaccinated people. In much of the U.S., a large number of adults, including older adults, remain unvaccinated.
Getting vaccinated not only helps protect yourself from serious illness and death but also those around you. If you have doubts about the vaccine, or if you are wondering whether or not it’s right for you, talk to your doctor to understand the facts about vaccination. We’re all in this together, and getting vaccinated is our best way to end this pandemic.
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