Very rare and very expected: Don’t be surprised when some vaccinated people get COVID

Credit: Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News
Credit: Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News

[N]early 40 million Americans have received the jabs they need for full immunization. A vanishingly small percentage of those people have gone on to test positive for the coronavirus. 

When breakthrough cases do arise, it’s not always clear why. The trio of vaccines now circulating in the United States were all designed around the original coronavirus variant, and seem to be a bit less effective against some newer versions of the virus. These troublesome variants have yet to render any of our current vaccines obsolete. But “the more variants there are, the more concern you have for breakthrough cases,” Saad Omer, a vaccine expert at Yale, told me. 

The circumstances of exposure to any version of the coronavirus will also make a difference. If vaccinated people are spending time with groups of unvaccinated people in places where the virus is running rampant, that still raises their chance of getting sick. Large doses of the virus can overwhelm the sturdiest of immune defenses, if given the chance.


The human side of the equation matters, too.

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The range of vaccine responses “isn’t a variation of two- to threefold; it’s thousands,” [immunologist Ali] Ellebedy told me. “Being vaccinated doesn’t mean you are immune. It means you have a better chance of protection.”

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