The state health department reported this week that among the 1,616 fully vaccinated Nebraskans who had breakthrough COVID infections, 79 of them were hospitalized and 17 died.
Breakthrough infections remain a small fraction of the total number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths that occurred in the state during the reporting period of Jan. 1 to July 31. They are affecting a small share of the people who are fully vaccinated, a number that in Nebraska tops 971,000.
“It is such a tiny, tiny percentage compared to the actual percentage of people who are not being infected,” Dr. Danny Leonard, a pediatrician at Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, said in a recent video briefing.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that no vaccine is 100% effective.
“There will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die from COVID-19,” officials note on the agency’s website.
Wednesday’s report from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services does not provide additional details about the people who have suffered breakthrough infections or how well they responded to the vaccine.
Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s infectious diseases division, said he is hearing anecdotal reports from colleagues indicating that the vast majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are not fully vaccinated.
The patients who are suffering breakthrough infections and becoming ill enough to require hospitalization are, for the most part, people with suppressed immune systems, he said.
COVID-19 vaccines greatly reduce the chance of severe illness and death and remain effective against the variants, including the delta variant. Like many other vaccines, they are less effective in people with weakened immune systems and the frail elderly.
Recognizing the potential for breakthroughs in immune-compromised people, the Food and Drug Administration late Thursday approved booster vaccines for certain immune-suppressed groups.
Unfortunately, Rupp said, the state may see more breakthrough infections with the rise of the highly transmissible delta variant.
The state’s figures cover the entire first half of the year rather than honing in on the last three to four weeks, when delta became dominant in the state.
More breakthroughs are also likely as a greater proportion of the population is vaccinated, he said. Some of the people with the infections will become ill enough to need hospitalization.
In studies, the Pfizer vaccine delivered 95% efficacy. But that still leaves room for breakthrough infections. Breakthroughs will likely be higher in the real world compared with the healthy population typically selected for studies.
“It doesn’t mean the vaccine isn’t working,” Rupp said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.