When Carolyn Studdard learned she’d contracted COVID-19 months after she’d been vaccinated, she grew concerned.
The 78-year-old Piedmont resident had just days before her diagnosis broken a shoulder and five ribs in a fall, and was being admitted to the COVID-19 unit at Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Georgia.
“She looked at me and said ‘I’m going to go in that unit and not come out’,” Studdard’s daughter, Stacey Preston, told APR on Monday. “I said, no, no, no. You’re different. You’ve got antibodies in you. You’re fighting it. You’re going to have a light case of it.”
So called “breakthrough” cases happen when a vaccinated person contracts COVID-19. Several high-profile breakthrough cases have been reported recently, at the White House and in the Olympics, but it’s important to note that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has said 99.5 percent of all deaths from COVID-19 are among the unvaccinated.
While the current vaccines are very good at preventing infection and serious illness, no vaccine is 100 percent effective, said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of infectious diseases at UAB, in a web town hall on Monday.
Breakthrough cases are still very rare, according to CDC data, and the odds are very good that the person’s outcome will be much better than if they hadn’t been vaccinated, Marrazzo said.
Out of the 161 million vaccinated in the U.S as of July 19, there were 5,601 reported COVID-19 hospitalizations, or .003 percent of the vaccinated, and 1,141 deaths, which was .0007 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Preston said she joined her mother on a trip to Las Vegas on July 11. They saw the sights, took a nighttime bus tour to see the lights and rode the gondolas at The Venetian. Face masks were commonplace in Las Vegas, Preston said, and her family, who are all vaccinated, kept their masks on, unless they were outside and away from others.
“It was a bucket list trip for her. She’d never been,” Preston said of her mother’s desire to see Las Vegas.
It was on that trip that Studdard fell, breaking her right shoulder and five ribs. She was treated for her injuries in Las Vegas and returned to Alabama on Wednesday, July 14. Two days later, that Friday, Studdard took her mother to her Anniston doctor to treat her injuries.
On the following Monday, Studdard began coughing and had shortness of breath, both symptoms of COVID-19, and she was diagnosed with the virus on Tuesday.
At first the thought was perhaps she got COVID-19 in Las Vegas, but Preston said the family got an email from the Anniston doctor the following day stating that seven visitors to that office the day Studdard had visited later contracted COVID-19. They recall seeing people without masks in that waiting room, she said.
Preston said Studdard’s doctor in the COVID unit told Preston by phone that it’s a good thing her mother got both shots of the Pfizer vaccine “because we would be looking at a completely different case with her, especially with broken ribs.”
“She’s actually doing, really, really good,” Preston said the doctor told her.
Studdard was given antibiotics and steroids, and stayed on oxygen for 24 hours before being released home after just three days in the COVID unit, Preston said. She’s been caring for her mother ever since the accident, has tested negative for COVID-19 twice and credits her vaccination for keeping her safe. Both Preston and her mother received their second shots of Pfizer on March 22.
“When she came home she said, ‘Well that wasn’t even that bad. I told him I’m ready to come home.’,” Preston said. “The doctor told me ‘There’s no telling what could have happened, and what kind of case we could be discussing if you didn’t have that vaccine.’”
“Who’s to say we wouldn’t be burying her right now?,” Preston said.
Both her parents are very active with their grandchildren, Preston said, which prompted the children to encourage both to get vaccinated. Studdard also loves to travel, she said, and knew without a vaccine she wouldn’t be safe.
“People are around their house a lot, and we knew that they needed to have vaccinations with the way COVID was going at that time,” Preston said. “They say kids can carry it and you don’t even know they’re sick.”
Alabama has the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated residents in the state, at 34 percent. Alabama’s seven-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases by date of infection rose by 434 percent from July 1 to Saturday, from 228 new cases daily to 1,219.
COVID-19 hospitalizations nearly doubled in the week ending Sunday, and on Monday reached 916, a 349 percent increase since July 1.
Dr. Ellen Eaton, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at UAB, in written responses to APR on Monday said those who are getting breakthrough infections usually have mild cough or cold symptoms.
“Although some feel this is a failure, it is actually miraculous,” Eaton said. “For vaccination to turn COVID from a life-threatening disease, that shuts down schools and economies and overwhelms hospitals, to a common cold is nothing short of a miracle.”
Eaton said if everyone were vaccinated, the very notion of weeks long quarantine and isolation that were required in the pre-vaccine era “would be eradicated”
“And the idea of hospitals turning away ambulances filled with heart attack and stroke victims would be a thing of the past,” Eaton said.
The Pfizer vaccine is still highly effective at preventing hospitalization (88 percent) and severe disease (greater than 90 percent, Eaton said.
“We expect that other available COVID vaccines will also be effective at preventing these severe COVID infections but have less real-world data than Pfizer,” she said.
UAB announced on Monday that of the 82 sample sequenced at UAB’s lab since July 12, 90 percent were the more contagious delta variant.
“The delta variant demonstrates why it is critical for all to get vaccinated. Unvaccinated persons not only are at higher risk for severe illness and death but are also a great host for newer and more transmissible and even more virulent COVID strains to develop,’ Eaton said.
“In other words, unvaccinated people are fertile ground for new mutations,” she said. “And those variants threaten the effectiveness of our vaccines: your decision to decline a vaccine makes your neighbors’ vaccine less effective.”
“I don’t understand it,” Preston said of the state’s low vaccination rate. “What if people would have acted like this about the polio vaccine, or the smallpox vaccine?”
Preston lost an uncle and mother-in-law to COVID-19. Her uncle contracted COVID-19 before vaccines were available, and the Mother-in-law was unvaccinated.
“Get the vaccine,” Preston said. “Because if you have other people in your life, especially someone that might be older, you can protect them. You’re not just protecting yourself. You’re protecting other people.”