What do we know about breakthrough infections in vaccinated people? Will Stone explains and shares the story of how surprised he was to get a breakthrough infection himself.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Breakthrough infections – this is a relatively new phrase that unfortunately is becoming more and more familiar. COVID vaccinations are saving lives. They are keeping people out of the hospital. But we know they do not offer complete protection against infection. The virus, particularly the new delta variant, can break through. It has happened to some of us at NPR, including our science reporter Will Stone. And he joins us now to talk about what he wishes he had known.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Hi. I’m glad you’re here. I’m so glad you’re feeling better.
STONE: Yes, I am, thankfully.
KELLY: Yeah. Walk us through how this unfolded. Did you know how you might have gotten sick?
STONE: Not exactly, but I had been traveling in the days before I got sick. And like a lot of us, I loosened up on my COVID precautions after getting vaccinated in the spring. And in late July, I flew from Seattle to the East Coast to see my family, and I went to a wedding with other people who were vaccinated. But I also stayed at a hotel, I ate indoors at restaurants, I hung around the city, went to the gym – so quite a few places where I could have caught the virus.
KELLY: Sure. Now, may I ask, how sick did you get?
STONE: It was rough, definitely right up there with the worst bouts of flu I’ve ever had. It started with overwhelming fatigue and a sore throat. Then I got a horrible headache. I spiked a 103-degree fever, and I’d wake up in the night just drenched in sweat. And I even lost my sense of smell and taste. So it was five really bad days. And even once that was over, it still took several weeks to get all my energy back.
KELLY: Yeah. And can you smell again? Can you taste again?
STONE: I can. I can.
KELLY: Good. Good, good, good. So again, just to emphasize, you were fully vaccinated, right? So you knew that you were unlikely to end up in the hospital, but were you surprised that you still got that sick?
STONE: I was surprised, especially that my breakthrough case is considered mild. Now, some people have mild breakthrough cases, and it really is just a runny nose. So what doctors consider mild, that’s really a wide range. And these breakthrough illnesses – we don’t have exact numbers, but they are happening more during this delta surge. One reassuring thing I learned afterwards is that if you do get a breakthrough, you’ll probably be sick for fewer days and have fewer symptoms than if you were unvaccinated.
KELLY: Will, I got to ask, did you get tested? Are you actually totally sure this was COVID?
STONE: I did, but it was actually a bit confusing at first. My first two test results were negative. They were both rapid antigen tests, so these are the fast, over-the-counter tests that are very convenient, except they’re not as accurate. And even the nurse reminded me of this after I got my second negative result. She said, don’t hang your hat on this. Act like you have COVID. And she took another sample and sent it to the lab for a PCR test instead. And sure enough, that came back positive.
KELLY: Came back positive. Well, so where does this leave you? How did this breakthrough infection change how you think about the pandemic as you’re reporting on the pandemic?
STONE: I think we are in a moment where many of us, including myself, are having to reset our expectations. And that’s tough because I know getting vaccinated – at one point, it really did feel like the finish line, and we had all earned it. So in my case, clearly, I wish I had been more careful. I would have taken the trip to see my family and to be at this wedding because I was vaccinated, and so was everyone else, but I would have worn a better mask like an N95, and I would have avoided many of the other things that raised my risk, like spending so much time indoors in public places, especially where other people were not wearing masks.
KELLY: Will Stone, thank you.
STONE: Thanks for having me.
KELLY: That is NPR science reporter Will Stone sharing his story – one account of what you might expect if you or someone you’re close to come down with breakthrough COVID.
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