Published in Health Care

Reporter's Notebook: Catching a breakthrough COVID case and reframing vaccines

BY Sunday, September 26, 2021 07:00pm

Michigan passed a dark, historic threshold on Sept. 22 when the number of confirmed positive COVID-19 cases surpassed 1 million people since the pandemic onset here in March 2020.

I have unfortunately contributed to this statistic. 

Despite being fully vaccinated and rarely leaving my apartment where I lived alone for the better part of 2020, I ended up contracting COVID-19 this month. 

To make matters worse, I assumed my early symptoms were just bad allergies before I hopped on a plane to Miami, where I got tested and found out I had the virus. By that point, I had passed the virus to my mom, with whom I was traveling and who thankfully only had mild symptoms. We were forced to cancel our return flights back to Michigan and opted to rent a car for the 20-hour drive back home.

My breakthrough COVID case ended up throwing two weeks of my life completely off kilter, including a week when I was supposed to be on a rare vacation. I had such deep shame as I texted the news to all of my friends whom I had seen the previous weekend, telling them they should get tested if they felt sick. It was a huge inconvenience. My symptoms were pretty bad for four to five days, but they were also manageable and I never came close to going to the hospital. 

I always knew the vaccine was not a silver bullet against COVID-19, but I let myself take more calculated risks after getting vaccinated. A false sense of security spread over me as I started to resume a semblance of my pre-pandemic social life of crowding into dive bars to sing karaoke and watching stand-up comedy. 

So in the moment — when I was stranded in the 90-degree Miami heat with body aches, a low-grade fever and a cough, looking at my positive COVID test results — I felt helpless and like I was losing control. I had let myself believe that I wouldn’t get sick if I was vaccinated to allow myself some sense of normalcy and community. 

Looking back on it, I am comforted by the fact that the result I had been fearing the most since 2020 finally happened to me, and I ended up being fine other than the inconvenience. 

Getting COVID-19 is becoming more inevitable for most people — vaccinated or not. There are fewer mandates and restrictions in Michigan compared to last year, yet the community transmission rate of spreading coronavirus is considered “high” in all but one Michigan county as of Sept. 22, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one in 10 Michigan residents has now been infected with COVID-19 in the past 18 months. That number doesn’t include an additional 123,575 probable cases of COVID-19.

The throughline in recent studies and reporting is that vaccinated people are still less likely to contract COVID-19 than their unvaccinated counterparts. If a breakthrough case does occur, the vaccinated are significantly less likely to go to the hospital or die from the virus.

Based on scouring social media and a group chat in which my friends swap tips on how to talk to our anti-vaccine family members, many people are becoming more skeptical of the vaccine with the rise in breakthrough cases.

At the 18-month point of a global pandemic that’s brought new risk with the delta variant, people should think of the vaccine as a way to significantly reduce the likelihood of serious symptoms and death — and not as a way of simply reducing the likelihood of contracting the virus. 

Reframing it in this way from the beginning would have saved me a lot of anxiety and stress.

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