When Christie Griffith started feeling ill a couple of weeks ago, she assumed it couldn’t be the coronavirus. As a nurse at Alta View Hospital in Sandy, she had been vaccinated in January.
But then her husband, who had only received his first injection and was also feeling ill, noticed that he could not smell gum. She couldn’t smell it either.
Sure enough, the next morning he tested positive for COVID-19.
Griffith is one of 96 Utahns who have contracted the virus after being fully vaccinated, which is defined as more than two weeks after their final doses.
“We call these ‘groundbreaking cases,'” said Tom Hudachko, spokesman for the Utah Department of Health. “… With 521,686 people fully vaccinated as of Thursday, only 96 breakthrough cases indicate that the COVID-19 vaccine is tremendously effective.”
The Pfizer vaccine, which Griffith received, is 95% effective in preventing COVID-19, while Moderna was 94.1% effective in trials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Federal researchers confirmed the effectiveness of the vaccines this week, with follow-up studies showing those vaccines are 90% effective.
“The Pfizer vaccine is very effective but it is not 100% effective; everyone knows, ”said Bryan, Griffith’s husband. “So someone has to get sick after getting an injection. Someone has to be the other 5%. I don’t know if we had a super variant or just bad luck or whatever. “
Breakthrough cases remain rare. For example, of one million fully vaccinated people in Washington state, epidemiologists found evidence of 102 major cases as of Feb. 1, the state health department said on March 30. A week earlier, researchers reported two studies in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed that a handful of healthcare workers had become infected after vaccination, out of the thousands that were tracked and tested.
The question of variants
Griffith’s sample is undergoing genomic sequencing to see if he contracted a variant of the virus. Any patient whose “breakthrough” case was identified with a PCR test, rather than a rapid antigen test, has a sample collected for genomic sequencing, said Ilene Risk, an epidemiologist with the Salt Lake County Health Department.
So far, only two of Utah’s 96 breakthrough cases have been confirmed to be a variant strain of the virus, Hudachko said. But those are the only two for which genomic sequencing has been completed; 39 samples were still pending in the lab as of Thursday, and the other 55 were antigen tests that cannot be sequenced.
Risk noted that lab work is still pending for Salt Lake County’s 11 known breakthrough cases.
“It takes the state lab a bit of time,” Risk said, “as they are also sequencing random samples, hospitalized cases, those we suspect are variants, and other groundbreaking cases as well.”
In all, about 3% of Utah’s positive cases are being sequenced. In the past four weeks, the so-called UK variant, B.1.1.7, has accounted for about 2.6% of all samples that were sequenced, Hudachko said. However, that is from a relatively small number of samples.
“All we know is that the number of variants that we are detecting is increasing,” Hudachko said. “This means that the variants are spreading in Utah, especially B.1.1.7.”
But it is not known whether any of the variants are more likely to escape the protections of the vaccine. Instead, vaccines can simply trigger a less powerful immune response in some people than others.
“There is a lot of heterogeneity in the antibody response with this vaccine,” Risk said.
‘Like … a cold’
Although she was puzzled to test positive after being vaccinated, Griffith said it is not known how much sicker she could have gotten without the vaccine.
“I’m sure it probably made my symptoms less severe,” she said. “I felt like I had a cold.”
Most Washington state residents who had confirmed advanced cases of coronavirus experienced only mild symptoms, if any, state health officials said.
While Utah officials do not count an infection as a “breakthrough” case if the patient has received only one of the two doses of the vaccine, partially vaccinated people have some protection, and Salt Lake County is tracking the Immunization records of hospitalized patients. , pointing out where they have had at least one chance.
As of Monday, there were 43 Salt Lake County patients who had been hospitalized for symptoms that were possibly due to COVID-19, even though they had received a dose of the vaccine, Risk said.
However, while those patients tested positive for COVID, health officials did not rule out other possible reasons for hospitalization in those 43 cases. And none of them were fully vaccinated.
For Griffith, protection against serious illness for those who are fully vaccinated means that he can imagine a time when COVID-19 is considered no more threatening than the cold symptoms he had for about a week in March, even if some people still suffer from that.
“I have to believe that the scientists who worked so hard to let us know what they are doing,” Griffith said. “I would still encourage people to get it.”