The physical and emotional ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic made it understandable that people were looking for a lifeline to hold on to. For many, that was the vaccines. Heralded as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, vaccines have been a game changer in terms of preventing serious illness from COVID-19. But a myth that people who have been fully vaccinated and then test positive for COVID are not actually contagious and can not infect others has persisted.
Can people who are fully vaccinated test positive for COVID and spread the disease? The answer is yes. According to an article in Nature “Individuals who contract COVID-19 after vaccination, and even after a booster dose, still shed virus into the air.”
When the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines completed their trials in late 2020 we learned they had an efficacy rate of more than 90% at preventing COVID-19 illness.
That 95% vaccine efficacy means is explained in a PBS Newshour article which states: “Imagine conducting a vaccine trial. You randomize 1,000 people to receive the vaccine in one group. You randomize another 1,000 to be given a placebo in the other group. Say 2.5% of people in the vaccinated group get COVID-19 compared with 50% in the unvaccinated group. That means the vaccine has 95% efficacy…So 95% indicates the reduction in the proportion of disease among the vaccinated group. However, a vaccine with 95% efficacy does not mean 5% of vaccinated people will get COVID-19. It’s even better news: Your risk of illness is reduced by 95%.”
How did we get from these very positive statistics to current rates of COVID-19? While there are several factors, variants, specifically the Delta variant and the Omicron variant and its sub-types, top the list. When breakthrough COVID cases first began appearing, they were described as “rare” occurrences. Rare turned to commonplace with the COVID-19 variants’ increasing ability to evade the vaccines.
The true utility of the vaccines is to protect individuals from ending up in the hospital and dying from COVID-19. According to the American Medical Association “[t]he…vaccines…are doing exactly what they were meant to do: protect against severe illness and hospitalization…Nevertheless, the fact remains that getting vaccinated is effective in preventing people from getting severely ill or dying from the disease.”
Such severe illnesses include Long COVID. As Dr. Donald J. Alcendor, assistant professor of cancer biology at Meharry Medical College told the AmNews, “If you’re infected with COVID, every time you’re infected, whether it’s a primary infection or reinfection or rebound infection, you have the risk of developing Long COVID. And nobody wants that…Because what we’ve seen is that people that even get vaccinated, they have different responses to the virus, some of them weak, some of them robust. But the idea of you having a weak response to COVID, and COVID becomes more of a serious illness for you…Weeks later might be on a ventilator, and at risk of losing your life.”
What can individuals do to safeguard themselves? According to the Mayo Clinic factsheet on COVID, individuals who are vaccinated can still test positive for COVID-19 and spread the disease to others. “Some fully vaccinated people will still get COVID-19 if they are exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19. These are called vaccine breakthrough infections. People with vaccine breakthrough infections may spread COVID-19 to others.”
While the disease is less deadly for people who are vaccinated, the CDC also recommends that individuals should continue to wear masks indoors, get booster shots, stay home if you have been exposed to COVID-19, and continue to get tested for COVID-19.For overall information regarding what to do if you do test positive for COVID-19, please review this factsheet from the NYC Health Department: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/covid/covid-19-symptoms-what-to-do-factsheet.pdf. You can also access resources on the AmNews COVID-19 page: https://amsterdamnews.com/covid/