My experience of a COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough infection


Friday, July 16, 2021, marked the end of a week on duty in the hospital, and it was time to celebrate with a nice dinner out with my wife, since COVID-19 masking requirements had been lifted in our part of California for people like us who were fully vaccinated.

Dr. Thomas McIlraith, immediate past chairman of the hospital medicine department at Mercy Medical Group, Sacramento, Calif.

Dr. Thomas McIlraith

We always loved a nice dinner out and missed it so much during the pandemic. Unlike 6 months earlier, when I was administering dexamethasone, remdesivir, and high-flow oxygen to half of the patients on my panel, not a single patient was diagnosed with COVID-19, much less treated for it, during the previous week. We were doing so well in Sacramento that the hospital visitation rules had been relaxed and vaccinated patients were not required to have a negative COVID-19 test prior to hospital admission.

Saturday was game 5 of the NBA finals, so we had two couples join us for the game at our house; no masks because we were all vaccinated. On Sunday, we visited our neighbors who had just had a new baby boy and made them the gift of some baby books. The new mom had struggled with the decision of whether to get vaccinated during her pregnancy, but eventually decided to complete the vaccination cycle prior to delivery. She was fully immune at the time of the baby’s birth, wisely wanting the baby to have passive immunity through her. We kept an appropriate distance, and never touched baby or mom, but since masking guidelines had been lifted for the vaccinated,we didn’t bother with them.

On Monday, I felt a little something in my nose but still pursued my usual workout. Interestingly, my performance wasn’t up to my usual standards. There was a meeting that evening that I had to prepare for, when all of a sudden I felt very fatigued. I lay down and slept for a good hour, which disrupted my preparation. I warned the participants that I was feeling a little under the weather, but they wanted to proceed. At this point, I decided it was time to start wearing a mask again.

More meetings on Tuesday morning, but I made sure that I was fully masked. That little thing in my nose had blown up into a full-scale rhinitis, requiring Kleenex and decongestants. Plus, the fatigue was hitting me very hard. “Dang!” I thought. “I haven’t had a cold since 2019. All those COVID-19 precautions not only worked against COVID-19 (which I never got) but also worked against the common cold, which I had now.”

I finished up my meetings and laid down for a good hour and a half. As the father of two, I had plenty of experience with the common cold, and I knew that plenty of rest and hydration was the key to kicking this thing. Besides, my 55th birthday was coming up, and I wanted to make sure I was fully recovered for the festivities my wife was planning for me. Nonetheless, I scheduled myself for a COVID-19 test. I knew this couldn’t be COVID-19 because I was fully vaccinated, but it was hitting me so hard. It had to be a virus that my body had never seen before; maybe the human metapneumovirus. That was my line of reasoning, anyway.

Wednesday was another day on the couch because of continued severe fatigue and myalgias. I figured another good day of rest would help me kick this cold in time for my birthday celebration. Then the COVID-19 results came back positive. “How could this be? I was vaccinated?!” Admittedly I had been more relaxed with masking, per the CDC and county guidelines, but I always wore a mask when I was seeing patients in the hospital. Yeah, I wasn’t wearing an N95 anymore, and I had given up my goggles months ago, but we just weren’t seeing much COVID-19 anymore, so a plain surgical mask was all that was required and seemed sufficient. I had been reading articles about the new Delta variant that was becoming dominant across the country, and reports were that the vaccine was still effective against the Delta variant. However, I was experiencing the COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough infection because of the remarkable talent the Delta variant has for replicating and producing high levels of viremia.

My first thoughts were for my family, of course. As my illness unfolded, I had kept checking in with them to see if they had any of these “cold” symptoms I had; none of them did. When my test came back positive, we all went into quarantine immediately and they went to get tested; all of them were negative. Next, I contacted the people I had been meeting with that week and warned them that I had tested positive. Despite my mask, and their fully vaccinated status, they needed to get tested. They did, and they were negative. I realized that I was probably contagious, though asymptomatic, on Saturday night when we had friends over to watch the NBA finals. Yeah, everyone was vaccinated, but if I could get sick from this new Delta variant, they could too. The public health department sent me a survey when they found out about my positive test, and they pinpointed Saturday as the day I started to be contagious. I told my friends that I was probably contagious when they were over for the game, and that they should get tested. They did, and everyone came back negative for COVID-19.

Wait a minute; what about Sunday night? The newborn baby and the sleep-deprived mom. Oh no! I was contagious then as well. We kept our distance, and were only there for about 10 minutes, but if I felt bad from COVID-19, I felt worse for exposing them to the virus.

I am no Anthony Fauci, and I am grateful that we have had levelheaded scientists like him to lead us through this terrible experience. I am sure there will be many papers written about COVID-19 breakthrough infections in the future, but I have many thoughts from this experience. First, my practice of wearing an N95 and goggles for all patients, not just COVID-19 patients, during the height of the pandemic was effective. Prior to getting vaccinated, my antibody tests were negative, so I never contracted the illness when I stuck to this regimen. Second, we all want to get back to something that looks like “normal,” but because there are large unvaccinated populations in the community the virus will continue to propagate and evolve, and hence everyone is at risk. While the guidelines said it was okay to ease up on our restrictions, because so many people are not vaccinated, we all must continue to keep our guard up. Third, would a booster shot have saved me from this fate? Because I was on the front lines of the pandemic as a hospitalist, I was also among the first members of my community to get vaccinated, receiving my second shot on Jan. 14, 2021. My wife was not in any risk group, was not on any vaccine priority list, and didn’t complete the series until early April. If I was going to give the infection to anyone, it would have been her. Not only did she never develop symptoms, but she also repeatedly tested negative, as did everyone else that I was in contact with when I was most contagious. The thing that was different about me from everyone else was that I had gotten the vaccine well ahead of them. Had my immunity waned over the months?

The good news is that, while I wouldn’t characterize what I had as “mild,” it certainly wasn’t protracted. Yes, I was a good boy, and did the basics: stay hydrated and get plenty of sleep. I was really bad off for about 3 days, and I hate to think what it would have been like if I had coexisting conditions such as asthma or diabetes. We all know what a bad case of COVID-19 looks like in the unvaccinated, with months in the hospital, intravenous infusions, and high-flow oxygen for the lucky ones. I had nothing remotely like that. The dominant symptom I had was incapacitating fatigue and significant body aches. The second night I had some major chills, sweats, and wild dreams. From a respiratory standpoint, I had bad rhinitis and a wicked cough for a while that tapered off. My oxygen saturations dropped into the mid 90’s, but never below 94%. But if I had been ten times sicker, I doubt I would have survived. I was on quarantine for 10 days but I highly doubt I was at all contagious by day 5, based on my symptoms and the fact that nobody around me turned COVID positive with repeat testing.

I was so relieved that none of my contacts when I was most contagious turned positive for COVID-19. Though not scientific, I find that illustrative. While I should have canceled my meetings on Monday and Tuesday, everybody knew I had a “cold” and nobody wanted to cancel. Nobody thought it possible that I had COVID-19, especially me. The Delta variant is notorious for generating high levels of viremia, yet I didn’t get anybody sick, not even my wife. That suggests to me that, while the vaccine doesn’t eliminate the risk of infection – which we already knew – it probably significantly reduced my infectivity. For that I am very grateful. Now that I can say that I had the COVID-19 experience, I can tell you it feels terrible. But I would have felt much worse if I had gotten others ill. My personal belief is that while the vaccine didn’t save me from disease, it dramatically truncated my illness, and significantly reduced my risk of passing the virus on to my friends and family.

So where did I contract the virus? We were unmasked at dinner on Friday night, which was acceptable in Yolo County at that time. By the way, I actually live in Yolo County, not YOLO (you only live once) county. You can imagine the latter would be a bit more loosey-goosey with the masking requirements. That notwithstanding, I don’t think the dinner was where I picked it up because it was too short of an incubation period. My wife and I obviously reacted differently, as I discussed, but we were both at the restaurant. She didn’t get COVID-19 and I did. I think that I probably picked it up at the hospital, because, while I was wearing a mask there, I was only wearing a surgical mask, not an N95. And I wasn’t wearing goggles anymore. While none of my patients were officially diagnosed with COVID-19, I was encountering a lot of people, getting in relatively close contact, and guidelines were being relaxed, including preadmission COVID-19 testing.

I was an outlier, as I have pointed out; none of my other close contacts contracted COVID-19. A lot of politics and public opinion is driven by outlier cases, and even pure fabrications these days; we certainly can’t create public health policy based on an outlier. I am not suggesting that my experience is any basis for rewriting the rules of COVID-19. The experience has given me pause to think through many facets of this horrible illness we have had to deal with in so many ways, however. And I have also reexamined my own practice for protecting myself in the hospital. Clearly what I was doing in the height of the pandemic was effective, and my more relaxed recent practices were not. Now that I am fully recovered after a relatively unique encounter with the condition, I look forward to seeing what the scientists and public policy makers do with COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough cases. So, between us hospitalist friends and colleagues, regardless of the policy guidelines, I say we keep on masking.

Dr. McIlraith is the founding chairman of the hospital medicine department at Mercy Medical Group in Sacramento. He received the SHM Award for Outstanding Service in Hospital Medicine in 2016.

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