Are breakthrough infections of COVID increasing in the U.S.?

covid breakthrough infections
Photo via Fernando Garcia/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott became the latest high-profile example of a breakthrough COVID-19 case, after announcing he tested positive Aug. 17 despite being fully vaccinated. That has added to the growing concern among some Americans that COVID breakthrough infections are increasing. 

The New York Times emphasized that the numbers were still comparatively low and that the level of immunity afforded by the vaccine still means the current wave of rising cases is mostly caused by unvaccinated people. Yet, some experts are warning that the narrative around the vaccine’s protective powers might be changing. 

“Remember when the early vaccine studies came out, it was like nobody gets hospitalized, nobody dies,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “That clearly is not true.”

Wachter advocated for the booster shot regimen that the Biden Administration appears ready to announce, based on signals from federal officials earlier in the week. 

“If the chances of a breakthrough infection have gone up considerably, and I think the evidence is clear that they have, and the level of protection against severe illness is no longer as robust as it was, I think the case for boosters goes up pretty quickly,” Wachter said. 

Another proponent of vaccines, Dr. Scott Dryden-Peterson, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, said, “We don’t want to dilute the message that the vaccine is tremendously successful and protective, more so than we ever hoped initially. The fact that we’re seeing breakthrough cases and breakthrough hospitalizations and deaths doesn’t diminish that it still saves many people’s lives.”

The Washington Post added that “a growing number of studies suggest that coronavirus vaccines continue to provide strong protection against severe disease and hospitalization, but their ability to prevent mild illness is less robust today than the original clinical trial studies demonstrated a year ago.” 

The article also pointed out that the vaccine primes the immune system to fight COVID-19 rather than provide an “impermeable protective sheath” against the virus. In other words, COVID breakthrough infections are inevitable.

“We could have done a much better job at setting realistic expectations for this vaccine,” said Paul A. Offit, a pediatrician and vaccine expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “And I think that’s hurt us. Because I think people get disappointed. They think the vaccine isn’t working.”

The Hill’s reporting noted that Abbott’s breakthrough case is a little different than what most Americans will experience. Abbott was being tested daily for the virus, and he is reportedly receiving the Regeneron monoclonal antibody treatment that President Trump was given when he tested positive for COVID-19 in October 2020—despite a statement from the governor’s office asserting that he’s asymptomatic. 

Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Al-Jazeera, The Hill

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