The COVID vaccine isn’t perfect. Verity Rodrigues of Nashville knew that. But she was still confused when she started getting sick in May.
“It’s a pretty unusual case, from what I’ve been told,” the 41-year-old child psychologist says.
Not only had Rodrigues been vaccinated, she also had some natural immunity from surviving COVID six months earlier — catching the virus from a patient. Rodrigues figured she had more immunity than most.
“I ended up going in and getting a second test,” she says, “because I really was in shock and disbelief.”
But it was confirmed. So, she isolated for another 10 days and suffered through the fatigue and sore throat all over again.
While any one person has a small chance of having the same experience, the historic scale of the COVID vaccination effort means thousands of people have gone through COVID after vaccination. The experience has become so common that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped reporting the so-called breakthrough cases unless the patient is hospitalized or passes away. Rodrigues says, in that way, the vaccine did seem to help, though COVID still may have left her with chronic asthma.
“Yes, I was sick, but I was not hospitalized,” she says. “I’m still here and running again, back to my usual self. Thank goodness.”
Through late June, breakthrough cases have resulted in 140 hospitalizations in Tennessee and 20 deaths. The report is updated by the Tennessee Department of Health every two weeks and should have newer data on Friday.
COVID hasn’t quit
But the growing prevalence of vaccine failure isn’t prompting concern about effectiveness of the shots. Rather, infectious disease experts say it should renew urgency in the stalled vaccination effort.
Public health officials in Tennessee are mostly doing random genetic sequencing of positive COVID tests to track variants, though Rodrigues asked if her specific swab could be screened so she’d know. For those like her with healthy immune systems, they can assume that a COVID mutation is to blame, says Dr. Keipp Talbot of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. A new study of vaccinated Israelis found the vaccine to be somewhat less effective against the delta strain.
“There will be more variants, and until the majority of the population is vaccinated throughout the world, we may see worse variants than the delta variant,” says Talbot, an infectious disease researcher.
She says the only way to keep the virus from mutating so quickly is to stop its spread.
“So, it’s incredibly important that we get to areas and answer questions and building confidence in the areas where there are very low vaccination rates,” she says.
Rural Tennessee has many counties where fewer than a third of residents are fully vaccinated. Talbot says the prevalence of breakthrough cases should be warning enough that COVID isn’t yet fully under control.