In all the alarming reports in the past few days about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, the key takeaway is they’re working and continue to provide strong protection against serious disease and death.
Reports of so-called breakthrough cases and revelations of an internal U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presentation indicating vaccinated people might be able to spread the virus as easily as people who aren’t vaccinated threaten to erode confidence in inoculations.
But the vaccines are working well and doing what they’re meant to do, said Dr. Philip Keiser, Galveston County’s local health authority.
As of last week, about 270 breakthrough cases had been confirmed among more than 170,000 fully vaccinated people in Galveston County, Keiser said. That means about 0.16 percent of vaccinated people in the county have reported contracting the virus.
When vaccinated people do get infected, they usually have mild symptoms because of the added protection provided by the vaccines, he said.
“From a numbers point of view, the vaccine is holding up,” Keiser said. “It’s disturbing when we see how rapidly delta is spreading, and we are seeing breakthroughs increase. But we’re not seeing hospitalizations in terms of breakthroughs. From the epidemiological data, there’s nothing there to say, ‘We need to act on this.’”
People at highest risk of infection are those who have neither been vaccinated nor already caught the virus, Keiser said. An unvaccinated person with no natural immunity is about 70 times more likely to get sick than a vaccinated person, he said. People depending on natural immunity from an infection are about five times more likely to get infected than a vaccinated person, he said.
Some anti-vaxxers and on-the-fencers consider reports of breakthrough infections as a sign vaccines are failing. But health experts see it as proof of how the unvaccinated are endangering their inoculated neighbors, according to a July 29 report by PBS NewsHour.
The number of breakthrough cases we’re seeing actually suggests the vaccines “are still working great,” but too much is being asked of them, Dr. Drew Weissman, who spent nearly two decades conducting research that led to the development of the mRNA vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna to stop the coronavirus, told NewsHour.
With only about half of the nation’s population — 163.3 million people — fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, the vaccine’s advantages begin to erode, Weissman, a physician and infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania, told News-Hour.
“You can’t control a pandemic when 30 percent or even half the people are immunized,” he said.
That’s already becoming painfully obvious as hospitals, including those at the University of Texas Medical Branch, are feeling the strain of an under- immunized population.
The medical branch last week said it had reached its full capacity because of the recent surge in COVID cases, and its chief medical officer is more concerned about the virus now than in the early days of the pandemic, he said.
“I am more worried now than I was 18 months ago,” Dr. Gulshan Sharma said.
Infected patients are younger and mostly unvaccinated, medical branch CEO Tim Harlin said Friday.
As of July 30, the medical branch was treating 113 COVID-positive patients across six hospitals and four campuses, Harlin said. Twenty were on ventilators. Of the admitted patients, 5 percent were breakthrough cases, or people who were fully vaccinated but still became sick with COVID. All the patients tested positive for the delta variant, officials said. Since June 1, none of the deaths at the medical branch have been fully vaccinated people. But countywide, four vaccinated people have died, said Ashley Tompkins, spokeswoman for the Galveston County Health District.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said COVID-19 vaccines still provide strong protection against serious disease and death, even as new research indicates vaccinated people can spread the worrying delta variant, according to a CBS News Monday.
Gottlieb noted the COVID-19 vaccines primarily were intended to significantly reduce the risk of severe illness and hospitalization. Unvaccinated people account for the overwhelming majority of new hospitalizations and deaths.
“That premise is still fully intact,” Gottlieb said. “We still see that these vaccines are doing a very good job preventing symptomatic disease, preventing hospitalization and death.”
• Laura Elder