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I got a 'mild' breakthrough case. Here's what I wish I'd known

Will Stone, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

The test results that hot day in early August shouldn’t have surprised me — all the symptoms were there. A few days earlier, fatigue had enveloped me like a weighted blanket. I chalked it up to my weekend of travel. Next, a headache clamped down on the back of my skull. Then my eyeballs started to ache. And soon enough, everything tasted like nothing.

As a reporter who’s covered the coronavirus since the first confirmed U.S. case landed in Seattle, where I live, I should have known what was coming, but there was some part of me that couldn’t quite believe it. I had a breakthrough case of COVID-19 — despite my two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the second one in April.

I was just one more example of our country’s tug and pull between fantasies of a post-COVID summer and the realities of our still-raging pandemic, in which even the vaccinated can get sick.

Not only was I sick, but I’d exposed my 67-year-old father and extended family during my first trip back to the East Coast since the start of the pandemic. It was just the scenario I had tried to avoid for a year and a half.

Where did I get it? Who knows. Like so many Americans, I had loosened up on wearing masks all the time and physical distancing after getting fully vaccinated. We had flown across the country, seen friends, stayed at a hotel, eaten indoors and, yes, even gone to a long-delayed wedding with other vaccinated people.

I ended up in quarantine at my father’s house. Two rapid antigen tests (taken a day apart) came back negative, but I could tell I was starting to feel sick. After my second negative test, the nurse leveled with me. “Don’t hang your hat on this,” she said of the results. Sure enough, a few days later the results of a PCR test for the coronavirus (this one sent to a lab) confirmed what had become obvious by then.

 

It was a miserable five days. My legs and arms ached, my fever crept up to 103 and every few hours of sleep would leave my sheets drenched in sweat. I’d drop into bed exhausted after a quick trip to the kitchen. To sum it up, I’d put my breakthrough case of COVID-19 right up there with my worst bouts of flu. Even after my fever broke, I spent the next few weeks feeling low.

Of course, I am very lucky. I didn’t go up against the virus with a naive immune system, like millions of Americans did before vaccines were widely available. And, in much of the world, vaccines are STILL a distant promise.

“You probably would have gotten much sicker if you had not been vaccinated,” Dr. Francesca Torriani, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Diego, explained to me recently.

As I shuffled around my room checking my fever, it was also reassuring to know that my chances of ending up in the hospital were slim, even with the delta variant. And now, about a month later, I’ve made a full recovery.

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