COVID-19 breakthrough cases: What are they and what do they mean? Original

FILE – In this Jan. 15, 2021, file photo, Dr. Yomaris Pena, Internal Medicine Physician with Somos Community Care at a COVID-19 extracts the Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine out of a vial at a vaccination site at the Corsi Houses in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York. U.S. health regulators have authorized extra doses of the COVID-19 vaccines in people with weakened immune systems to better protect them from the virus. The announcement Thursday, Aug. 12. by the Food and Drug Administration applies to millions of Americans who take immune-suppressing medicines because of organ transplants, cancer or other disorders.(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — With active cases of COVID-19 rising to levels not seen in months in South Dakota, the majority of cases are occurring in those who are unvaccinated.

According to the South Dakota Department of Health (DOH), in the first six months of 2021, 97% of COVID cases and 94% of COVID hospitalizations in South Dakota occurred among people who were not fully vaccinated.

While unvaccinated individuals make up the bulk of new cases and hospitalizations, a small percentage are in vaccinated individuals. These cases are referred to as breakthrough cases.

According to Dr. Susan Hoover, an infectious disease physician with Sanford Health, a breakthrough case is a person who develops COVID despite having been vaccinated.

“In general, a breakthrough case would be in someone who’s been fully vaccinated — and enough time would have to have gone by for the vaccine to be effective,” she said.

“Some of those cases can be in people who have no symptoms at all — and there can be people ranging from very mild illness to serious illness and hospitalization,” Hoover said. “All of those would be included in the term breakthrough infections.”

So why are these breakthrough infections happening? Dr. Michael Elliott, Chief Medical Officer for Avera Medical Group, explains that no vaccine is perfect.

“A vaccine can’t stop the virus from entering you. If it lands on your eyes or in your nose or in your mouth, guess what? The virus is there,” Elliott said. “The vaccine is not an invisible force-field. What the vaccine does however, when you get exposed to the virus, it jump-starts your immune system [and] makes it much less likely the virus is going to take hold.”

While breakthrough cases are expected, they are also rare.

“Vaccination is still preventing most of the cases,” Hoover said. “Over 90% of the cases are being prevented, so vaccine is still the best way to protect yourself from infection.”

Breakthrough infections occur, and they’re concerning and they get a lot of attention, but the great majority of cases are still in unvaccinated people.

dr. susan hoover, infectious disease physician with Sanford Health

Another area where vaccines make a difference is when it comes to the likelihood of developing symptoms.

“You’re more likely to have symptoms; more likely to shed the virus longer; more likely to have severe symptoms if you’re not vaccinated,” said Elliott.

When it comes to preventing breakthrough infections, Hoover said the way to do so is through vaccination.

“The more transmission we have in the population, the more likely any person is to be exposed to the COVID-19 virus, and so the more likely they are to become infected, regardless of their vaccination status,” Hoover said.

“I strongly recommend that you get the COVID vaccine,” said Hoover. “It’s safe, it’s very effective; there’s really no reason not to get one — and it’s free.”

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