Because most Canadians are now inoculated against COVID, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in the number of vaccinated people who are coming down with the disease.
As we’ve written before, breakthrough infections are rare, and severe breakthrough infections are even rarer. But with so many vaccinated people, it’s a statistical certainty that we will see more of them. The right question to ask is not how many vaccinated people are getting sick, but how sick are they getting and how much more severe would those outbreaks be without vaccines? There’s clear evidence the answers, respectively, are “not very, not often” and “much more.”
A defanged version of the disease dubbed “post-vax COVID” may soon be a routine illness, in most cases not more severe in vaccinated individuals than the common cold.
But we’re not there just yet. More severe or contagious variants could still emerge and there remain plenty of naïve immune systems at higher risk. Which raises the question: Can you still spread COVID if you’re vaccinated?
The official line from health experts has created some confusion. According to the Atlantic, in April, after months of public-health experts cautiously promoting vaccination, the Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease control proclaimed that “vaccinated people do not carry the virus” and therefore, cannot transmit it. But many other experts objected, saying there wasn’t enough data to confirm such a statement.
Sure enough, a study from Provincetown, Massachusetts emerged suggesting that not only had there been an outbreak in which 74% of the 469 cases were vaccinated, but that they were just as contagious. Headlines followed implying that you could spread COVID just as easily if you had the shot.
But according to Dr. Craig Spencer, the director of global health in emergency medicine at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, “this framing missed the single most important factor in spreading the coronavirus: To spread the coronavirus, you have to have the coronavirus. And vaccinated people are far less likely to have the coronavirus.”
When there is a breakthrough case, it’s true that person could be as infectious as an unvaccinated person, Dr. Spencer explained. “But they are likely contagious for a shorter period of time when compared with the unvaccinated, and they may harbor less infectious virus overall.”
Vaccines aren’t perfect, but they work very well for individuals, and those effects scale even more dramatically at the population level.
For example, Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was about 80% to 90% effective at preventing paralysis caused by the virus, the most severe outcome. It was hailed as a medical miracle and now, after years, polio is gone in the developed world. Most evidence suggests COVID vaccines are even more effective at preventing severe disease than the Salk vaccine.
At this point in the pandemic, caution is still warranted. Masking in tight or crowded indoor spaces maximizes protection, and studies related to breakthrough infections are ongoing. But so far, the body of scientific findings are clear: getting vaccinated is not only the best way to protect yourself, it’s the best way to protect the people around you.
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