I Got a Breakthrough COVID-19 Case. We Don't Need To Panic About It.

In Virginia, the breakthrough hospitalization rate is 0.0032 percent and the breakthrough death rate is 0.0009 percent.


It started with my senses of taste and smell. I noticed, all of a sudden, the soup I was eating for lunch lacked all flavor. I thought maybe I had accidentally purchased the low-sodium kind.

No, it wasn't that: It was a breakthrough—i.e., post-vaccination—case of COVID-19.

A rash of such cases, most notably in Provincetown, Massachusetts, has prompted considerable concern from some government policy makers as well as the mainstream media. A Washington Post headline wrongly implied that the vaccinated were contracting COVID-19 at an equal or greater rate than the unvaccinated, and The New York Times claimed—incorrectly—that the vaccinated were just as imperiled by the delta variant. The media's doomsaying actually earned a rebuke from the White House, though the government itself has serially distorted the risks of breakthrough infection.

As Reason's Jacob Sullum explains, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky and the White House's COVID-19 communications director, Ben Wakana, have both made innumerate comments that significantly overstated the number of vaccinated people who are likely to become infected. Walensky claimed in an interview that one or two of every 20 vaccinated people might catch COVID-19, and Wakana said it might be one out of 10. They appear to be misunderstanding precisely what it means to say that the vaccines are "90 percent effective"; this does not mean that nine out of 10 vaccinated people are protected from COVID-19, but rather, that the risk to the vaccinated is 90 percent lower than the risk to the unvaccinated. The experts do not think that one in every 10 vaccinated people will contract a breakthrough case every time they have prolonged contact with the infected: They do not even expect that one in 10 unvaccinated people are in such danger.

All that said, breakthrough cases are certainly going to happen. But the good news is that the vaccines appear to be working tremendously well at suppressing severe disease and death. Just 0.001 percent of vaccinated Americans have subsequently died from COVID-19 nationwide. In Virginia, 2,471 infected individuals have died since January 21, 2021. During that same time period, the number of breakthrough COVID-19 deaths was just 42. This means that the unvaccinated represent 98 percent of all deaths. The breakthrough hospitalization rate is 0.0032 percent and the breakthrough death rate is 0.0009 percent. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the vast, vast majority of vaccinated people who contract COVID-19 will suffer only mild symptoms.

This has certainly been my own experience. After losing taste and smell, I started feeling like I had a bad cold. I tested positive for COVID-19, quarantined myself, and took to bed. Within 24 hours, I felt much better, and after a second day, I was completely fine (though my taste buds are taking their time to return). My Pfizer vaccine did not prevent me from contracting the virus, but it made my own experience with the disease an extremely brief and tolerable one.

It's frustrating that some local officials are seizing this moment of unnecessary panic and reimposing futile restrictions. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has once again subjected the city to an indoor mask mandate, though she has not bothered to follow it herself: She held a maskless birthday party just before the mandate went into effect, and participated in a maskless wedding just after. There is no good reason that we must again wear masks or live under lockdowns. The vaccines are working, and the more people who get them, the less impact COVID-19 will have on any of our lives.

On Sunday, I discussed my breakthrough infection and the media's unnecessary panic on CNN. Watch below.