Can You Really Get COVID-19 After Getting The Vaccine?

When the coronavirus pandemic spun out of control last year, most of us held on to the hope that if and when a vaccine should come about, we could all get the shot and go back to life as we knew it. But now that we've got a range of vaccines to choose from, some of us may be discovering that the vaccines don't necessarily free us from the threat posed by COVID-19. And while getting sick with the coronavirus after the vaccine isn't happening too frequently, it is happening often enough for researchers to give the phenomenon a name –"breakthrough infections" (via Miami Herald).

Breakthrough infections don't just happen with the COVID-19 vaccinations; they are an unfortunate side effect of every single vaccine we are given. As an example, our annual flu shots are only between 40 to 60 percent effective against whatever influenza variant may be going around. By contrast, clinical tests show that the Pfizer and the Moderna shots can provide as much as 95 percent protection against COVID-19. 

Pandemic expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has said he isn't surprised to see that a handful of folks come down with the coronavirus even after they've been fully inoculated. "You will see breakthrough infections in any vaccination when you're vaccinating literally tens and tens and tens of millions of people. So, in some respects, that's not surprising," Dr. Fauci says.

Vaccines can prevent a serious case of COVID-19

Public health experts are quick to emphasize that when the COVID-19 vaccines — from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson — were approved for emergency use, it was made clear that they would deter the onset of serious COVID. What they couldn't do was keep people from getting ill altogether. "The good news is for that very small amount of people that might become infected, that less than 5%, the chances of severe disease is next to zero," Dr. Timothy Hendrix tells Click Orlando.  

It's important to remember that even if you, your loved ones, and friends are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, public health experts say that's not a reason to let your guard down. Director of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's vaccine education center Dr. Paul Offit tells TIME that people may not really understand what it means to get vaccinated, and what having vaccines that are "90 percent effective" means.

"People may interpret these results as meaning, 'Great, now that I'm vaccinated I don't need to wear a mask because I'm not at risk of infection,'" he says. "The problem with that are the variants. You can still get sick if you are exposed to a variant, and you can still shed and spread the virus."

As Emory University professor of medicine Dr. Carlos Del Rio put it, "The protection against infection wasn't perfect — 80% to 90%. Can I increase that to closer to 100% by wearing a mask? Yes."