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Scientists scramble to see why, in rare cases, even the vaccinated can get COVID-19

Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Carey Alexander Washington, 80, a practicing clinical psychologist, called his daughter in January as soon as he received his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

"He was just so excited that he had gotten it," said Tanya Washington, 49, a resident of Atlanta who works at an investment firm.

Carey received his second shot Feb. 4. A little more than a month later, the South Carolina resident experienced shortness of breath. His internist did not test him for the virus. Carey, after all, was fully vaccinated. The doctor sent him to a cardiologist instead, who also didn't test for the coronavirus.

On March 25, Carey died after nearly two weeks in the hospital, his final days in intensive care. COVID-19 had destroyed his lungs.

Carey was among a tiny proportion of people who had been vaccinated against COVID-19 and then contracted the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that about .008% of the fully vaccinated have become infected and about 1% of them have died. Public health officials said such cases were expected and their number reassuringly few.

"No suit of armor is 100% effective," said Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, Berkeley.


But the so-called breakthrough infections remain troubling, and the reported numbers are likely lower than the actual cases. They serve as cautionary tales to fully vaccinated people to get tested if they develop symptoms for the infection and to continue to follow health guidelines.

In Carey Washington's case, his daughter wondered if he might have survived if he had been tested early on for the coronavirus, after his symptoms appeared. Did his vaccination status deter his doctors from testing him?

As the pandemic continues, researchers want to know more about such cases, including the role different strains of the virus may play and whether infected people share traits or behavior that made them more vulnerable. The information could lead to modifications of the vaccine or how it is administered to certain people.

Stacia Wyman, a scientist at UC Berkeley who is sequencing the genome of the virus in breakthrough cases, said there should be a centralized place for gathering breakthrough genome sequences so patterns can be detected and information shared.


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