What To Know About ‘Breakthrough’ COVID Infections After The Vaccine

by Virginia Duan
Eugene Mymrin/Getty

It was bound to happen. More and more people are being infected with COVID-19 more than two weeks after getting their final shots, and not only are these breakthrough cases going to continue to increase — it’s totally expected.

After all, no vaccine is 100% effective. As for the COVID vaccines, they teach your immune system to recognize and fight off the SARS-CoV-2 virus if you do get exposed, or if you do get infected, you generally experience milder symptoms and most likely won’t require hospitalization. In the aftermath of more than 562,000 COVID deaths in the U.S., I’ll take the less severe cases, thanks.

What is a breakthrough COVID-19 infection?

In baby language, a breakthrough COVID-19 infection is when a person who is fully vaccinated for COVID-19 gets infected with the coronavirus anyway. These breakthrough infections are behind the efficacy rates of particular COVID vaccines, and the reason why no vaccine is 100% efficacious.

Even America’s doctor, Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned in a video that there may be hundreds or thousands of fully vaccinated people who will get infected with the coronavirus. Fauci said that the key was to compare the low number of infections to the 74 million people (as of April 12, 2021) who have been vaccinated.

“Ninety-nine per cent or more people are not going to have breakthrough infection,” Eric Topol told “The New Yorker.” The professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in San Diego explained that even if you do get infected, the vaccine will prevent a severe case of COVID-19, keeping you from hospitalization and death. Again, it cannot be overemphasized: breakthrough infections are inevitable. The goal of vaccination is to make the risk of infection tolerably low and survivable.

Why do breakthrough infections occur after vaccination?

Radoslav Zilinsky/Getty

Getty Images

It’s not always clear why breakthrough infections occur, though there are a few reasons.

COVID-19 variants

One of the main reasons people can get the coronavirus even after being fully vaccinated is because of all the variants of COVID-19 that are now spreading. The three COVID vaccines available in the U.S. were based off of the original coronavirus and may be slightly less effective against the variants — though they have yet to be rendered completely useless.

In a White House briefing, Fauci said, “We see this with all vaccines, in clinical trials, in the real world.” The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases offered the flu vaccine as a good example of how breakthrough infections operate. For instance, because the flu virus mutates quickly the vaccine is only 40% to 60% effective — and that’s considered a good year.

“If you get vaccinated, no doubt, you’re less likely to get the flu. But even if you do get the flu and get sick, vaccination can reduce the severity and duration of illness, and could help get you out of trouble,” Fauci said.

Spending time with groups of unvaccinated people

In addition, if you’re vaccinated but spending time with groups of unvaccinated people in COVID hotspots, this will definitely increase your odds of getting a breakthrough infection. Even the most robust of immune systems can succumb to the original coronavirus (or a variant) if the virus is present in enough quantities.

Immunity is not the same across the board

Turns out, people are not exactly the same — and thus, your immune response to the vaccine will also differ. Some people may make a ton of antibodies after being vaccinated, some folks may not. Some people may have underlying conditions that dampen their immune response even after vaccination, and some folks may never present COVID antibodies at all.

What can we do to protect ourselves from breakthrough infections?


Getty Images

With a possible fourth wave of COVID on the horizon because we can’t have nice things and people and states are really being a little too free with this unwarranted vaccine optimism, it bears repeating that the vaccine is not a magic bullet. It cannot protect against every variant. We don’t know how long and for whom the current vaccines will be effective in the face of the more virulent strains. The longer it takes to vaccinate our country, the more likely more strains will mutate and hit stateside.

Please, for the love of Justin Bieber, continue to follow the guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Vaccines are only one layer in our defense against COVID-19. Don’t be a chump and put all your eggs in one basket. Wear a well-fitting face covering mask correctly. Wash your hands and don’t touch your face. Maintain proper social distancing. Stay in well ventilated areas. Come on, you know the drill already. Even though your chances of being one of the few breakthrough infections is small, it’s still not an ideal scenario should you end up beating the odds.

Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.