What are COVID-19 breakthrough infections like? 4 people share their experiences

Breakthrough COVID-19 infections, when a fully vaccinated person contracts the coronavirus at least two weeks after their second shot, are quite rare, but they have occurred in a tiny fraction of the vaccinated population.

As of Tuesday, NBC News recorded at least 248,943 breakthrough cases in 42 states (several states didn’t share their data) out of 166 million fully vaccinated people. And an even smaller portion of breakthrough cases result in hospitalizations and death: 7,608 and 1,587 respectively as of Aug. 9, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What’s more, vaccinated people tend to experience milder COVID-19 symptoms, if they experience any at all. But for people who do actually get sick, the experience can be unpleasant.

“I started out with a head cold. I thought that it was just allergies,” Jessica Conrad told TODAY’s Vicky Nguyen in a segment that aired Wednesday. “When I tested positive, I was like, ‘What is going on?'”

Adam Rothman told Nguyen that both his and his wife’s breakthrough infections left them “quite sick.” His symptoms included “fever, chills, fatigue. I had a terrible headache for a while.” After finding out he’d tested positive, he felt “disappointment and frustration,” he said. “I can’t believe that this is happening after all of this time. We’ve been so careful.”

Risa Klein said she also thought she had a cold initially, but losing her taste and smell tipped her off that something was wrong. Her symptoms lasted between three and four days.

Breakthrough cases are occurring more frequently than NBC News medical contributor Dr. Kavita Patel expected, which she largely attributes to the highly contagious delta variant, now the dominant strain in the U.S.

“The vaccines work, but don’t expect the vaccine to prevent you from getting infected,” she told Nguyen. Still, she maintains that “these vaccines are miracles.”

“One, they prevent death. Almost all throughout these breakthrough cases … we do not see people dying. We do not see people having severe hospitalizations ending up in intensive care units. That is an incredible reason to get the vaccine.”

The data right now on breakthrough infections is limited, but Patel noted that it suggests they tend to be more common in women and older people. Patel also added that breakthrough infections seem to occur in equal levels across all three vaccines available in the U.S.

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As researchers seek learn more about breakthrough infections and the delta variant, many experts say that vaccinated people should return to taking precautions to stem the spread of COVID-19. Conrad said she stopped wearing a mask two weeks getting her second dose, and Jack Tolman, another breakthrough patient who spoke to Nguyen, said he started going out and seeing people more after he was fully vaccinated.

Even though vaccinated people have a much smaller risk of getting seriously ill from the coronavirus, a recent CDC report suggested that “breakthrough infections may be as transmissible as unvaccinated cases.” To protect yourself and others, regardless of your vaccination status, wear masks in public, avoid large gatherings, especially indoors, and practice social distancing.

Maura Hohman is a Brooklyn-based weekend editor and reporter for TODAY Digital who joined the team early in the coronavirus pandemic. While she happily writes about a range of topics, from pop culture to politics, she has a special interest in in-depth health coverage, especially COVID-19 research, women’s health and racial health disparities.

Conor Ferguson

Conor Ferguson is a consumer investigative producer with the NBC News Investigative Unit.

Vicky Nguyen is the Investigative and Consumer correspondent for NBC News. See her reports on “TODAY,” “Nightly News with Lester Holt,” and MSNBC.

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