Nearly 3% of medical workers in a new Israeli study contracted COVID-19 while being vaccinated, and 19% of them still had symptoms six weeks later.
Although vaccines were never meant to be perfect, the results raise questions about their protection and suggest that even those vaccinated could experience long-term symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, and shortness of breath.
Dr Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said he finds it worrying – though not conclusive – that people have persistent symptoms weeks after becoming ill.
“There can really be a risk here, but we don’t know how much of a risk it is and how much of a problem,” he said.
Most of the people in the study who became ill had mild symptoms, and none were hospitalized.
But Jha said he was troubled that young and healthy people could get so-called “breakthrough” infections a few months after vaccination. Scientists expected protection to wane over time, and they expected vaccines to be less effective in the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. But that’s not who got sick in this study.
Dr Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, said she was not surprised that a number of healthcare workers are infected after being vaccinated because they are constantly exposed to sick people.
“It makes sense to me that healthcare workers are particularly susceptible to breakthrough infections,” she said via email, “making mitigation (universal masking) procedures even more important in healthcare settings “.
The good news is that none of the 39 infected people passed the coronavirus on to anyone else, according to the study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Coronavirus vaccines were never designed to perfectly protect people against all infections, noted Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist who founded and directs the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California.
He said current vaccines are great for preventing serious infections deep in the lungs, but not for blocking infection in the upper respiratory tract. What is needed, he said, is a nasal spray vaccine that would prevent the coronavirus from setting in at all.
Topol said he wanted the federal government to prioritize a nasal vaccine with injections. “It would have been the perfect combination,” he said.
Some researchers believed that vaccines would lower the viral load and that people with a lower viral load would be less likely to have persistent symptoms. Topol said the new study calls this into question.
“Those who are vaccinated have done everything right, but some will go through COVID for a long time, and that’s really unfortunate,” he said.
The study followed about 1,500 Israeli healthcare workers for four months after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Anyone who tested positive more than 11 days after the second dose was considered a breakthrough case.
Thirty-nine people – 2.6% of the total – have been diagnosed with the virus. One was immunocompromised; the rest were in good health, including nurses, maintenance workers and a few doctors.
The 37 people for whom data were available were infected by an unvaccinated person, usually at home.
Two-thirds had mild symptoms; the rest had none at all.
Six weeks after their diagnosis, 19% said they still had at least one symptom: loss of smell, cough, fatigue, weakness, difficulty breathing or muscle pain. Nine employees – 23% – were not healthy enough to return to work after 10 days of mandatory quarantine. One had not returned after six weeks.
Most had the alpha variant of the virus, which is more contagious than the original version, but less infectious than the delta variant which now accounts for most cases in the United States.
It is not known if the delta is more dangerous besides being more contagious, Jha said.
“The evidence is really, really mixed as to whether delta is more virulent. I can point you to some studies that support it and other studies that support it not, but none of it. ‘between them is not particularly definitive, “he said.
Topol said the best protection is to get the vaccine and to practice social measures like wearing a mask.
“Don’t do the delta stress test. Keep a mask on,” he said. “With the vaccine, you can be confident, but you cannot be 100% confident.”
Contact Karen Weintraub at email@example.com.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Breakthrough COVID-19 Infections May Lead to Long-Term Symptoms: Study