What I learned from getting a breakthrough COVID-19 infection

Even for the vaccinated, the coronavirus is no walk in the park, as one CQ Roll Call health care reporter can attest

State data proves breakthrough COVID-19 cases are becoming more common as the delta variant roars through the country. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
State data proves breakthrough COVID-19 cases are becoming more common as the delta variant roars through the country. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 22, 2021 at 6:15am

Symptomatic COVID-19 after vaccination is extremely rare, especially when you’re relatively young and healthy. After a year and a half of reporting on and successfully avoiding this virus, I convinced myself there was little chance I would get infected.

But after my husband and I drove to the beach in late August, he tested positive, with obvious symptoms: a hacking cough, no sense of smell, a high fever. He spent a week sick in bed while I surprisingly felt fine. For this, I thanked my two doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. He’d received the Johnson & Johnson shot, and studies show the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines provide stronger protection against breakthrough cases than the one-shot vaccine does.

I hoped I had dodged the virus entirely. It’s more difficult to catch the virus from a person with a breakthrough case because their viral load is much smaller.

But sure enough, after a week, my head started pounding. Then came the fever, then the exhaustion, and then the outcome I’d tried so hard to escape: a positive COVID-19 test result.

A post-vaccination COVID-19 infection is considered “mild” until you go to the hospital or require oxygen. But there’s a wide range between an asymptomatic case and going to the emergency room. It was more difficult than I imagined to navigate an in-between case. Here is some of what I learned.

Mild breakthrough cases aren’t always all that mild

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says an unvaccinated person is five times more likely to get a COVID-19 infection than a vaccinated person. The vaccine also lessens the severity of the virus. But even with antibody protection, this virus is no walk in the park.

For two straight weeks, my body felt like I had just finished a marathon, even though I’d spent the day on the sofa. I got dizzy taking the dog around the block. Concentrating was nearly impossible.

The advice I saw remained consistent: Drink fluids and wait it out. Luckily, most vaccinated people recover within two weeks, and I did, but the isolation, discomfort and setbacks took a toll.

Testing problems are still rampant

I went to D.C. Health testing sites every few days to get a free test after my husband tested positive. I tested negative twice. On one occasion, it took the city six days to send back test results. When I finally tested positive, it took five days for the city to let me know.

In the interim, I ended up borrowing a Dutch-language at-home rapid test a friend had picked up on a recent trip overseas. She told me they handed the tests out like free candy at the Amsterdam airport. Meanwhile, every CVS on Capitol Hill was sold out.

Breakthrough cases are becoming more common

Six months post-vaccination, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised to get infected. Studies show the Pfizer vaccine begins to lose efficacy four months after the second shot, and state data proves breakthrough cases are becoming more common as the delta variant roars through the country.

Right now, nearly 95 percent of U.S. counties are in the worst category for high transmission, the “red zone,” with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people.

The less virus that’s in your area, the less likely you are to get a breakthrough case. But, right now, that’s not the reality for most of the country.