Almost 3% of medical workers in a new Israeli study contracted COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, and 19% of them still had symptoms six weeks later.
While the vaccines were never expected to be perfect, the results raise questions about their protection and suggest that they are Long-term symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, and shortness of breath may occur in people who have been vaccinated.
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health, said he found it worrying – if inconclusive – that people had persistent symptoms weeks after they became ill.
“There can really be a risk here, but we don’t know how big the risk is or how big the problem is,” he said.
Most of the patients in the study who got sick had mild symptoms and none were hospitalized.
But Jha said he was concerned that young, healthy people would get what are known as breakthrough infections within a few months of being vaccinated. Scientists expected the protection to wear off over time, and they expected the vaccines to be less effective in the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.
But that’s not the one who got sick in this study.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, said she wasn’t surprised that a number of health care workers would become infected after vaccination because of constant exposure to sick people.
“It makes sense to me that healthcare workers are particularly susceptible to breakthrough infections,” she said via email, “which makes mitigation (universal masking) even more important in healthcare.”
The good news is that none of the 39 infected people passed the coronavirus on to others, according to the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday.
Coronavirus vaccines were never designed to perfectly protect people from all infections, noted Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist who founded and directs the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California.
He said the current vaccines are great at preventing serious infections deep in the lungs, but not blocking the infections in the upper respiratory tract. What is needed, he said, is a nasal spray vaccine that would prevent the coronavirus from even gaining a foothold.
Topol said he wished the federal government had prioritized a nasal vaccine along with syringes.
“That would have been the perfect combination,” he said.
Some researchers believed that vaccines would reduce viral loads and make people with lower viral loads less likely to have persistent symptoms. Topol said the new study calls that into question.
“Those who are vaccinated did everything right, but some will be sick with COVID for a long time, and that is really unfortunate,” he said.
The study followed approximately 1,500 Israeli health care workers for four months after receiving the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine. Anyone who tested positive more than 11 days after the second dose was considered a breakthrough case.
39 people – 2.6% of the total – were diagnosed with the virus. One was immunocompromised; the rest were healthy, including nurses, maintenance staff, and a few doctors.
All 37 people for whom data were available were infected by an unvaccinated person, usually at home.
Two thirds had mild symptoms; the rest didn’t have any.
Six weeks after diagnosis, 19% said they still had at least one symptom: loss of smell, cough, tiredness, weakness, difficulty breathing or muscle pain. Nine employees – 23% – were not healthy enough to return to work after 10 days of quarantine. One hadn’t returned after six weeks.
Most had the alpha variant of the virus, which is more contagious than the original version but less infectious than the delta variant that accounts for most cases in the US today.
Whether Delta is more dangerous and contagious remains unclear, Jha said.
“The evidence on whether Delta is more virulent is really mixed,” he said. “I can refer you to some studies that argue that it is and other studies that argue that it is not, but none of them are particularly definitive.”
Topol said the best protection is to get vaccinated and practice social measures like wearing a mask.
“Don’t do the delta stress test. Keep a mask on, ”he said. “With the vaccine, you can be sure, but you can’t be 100% sure.”
Contact Karen Weintraub at [email protected].
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