8 fully vaccinated Mainers have died from COVID-19. Vaccines still prevent more deaths.
June 13 - When Karen Letourneau saw her mother for the first time in over a year in April, she hadn't expected it to be the last.
Letourneau's mother, Patricia Caron of Lewiston, had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine three weeks earlier. On the day they met, Caron felt symptoms of a cold. But when Letourneau, who lives in Wales and was partially vaccinated at the time, had symptoms of COVID-19 a few days later, she asked her mother to get tested.
Caron received a rapid coronavirus test. It came back positive. She ended up in the hospital and died a few weeks later of COVID-19 complications, her daughter said, becoming one of eight fully vaccinated Mainers who succumbed to the disease.
These so-called breakthrough infections are rare, said Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, last week. The state has identified 426 cases of the virus in fully vaccinated people, which equates to about 1 in 1,600 vaccinated people in Maine. By comparison, more than 15,000 Mainers, or 1 in 88 people, tested positive for the virus in the last two months alone.
These numbers are in line with scientific studies showing that vaccines used in the United States are more than 90 percent effective. But the deaths are tragedy for families who believed vaccines would eliminate the risk of COVID-19 and raise concerns in people with compromised immune systems and their loved ones.
Health officials still insist that vaccination is still the best way to stop the virus from spreading and prevent serious illness, and are optimistic that Maine's high overall vaccination rate will further reduce transmission, including landmark cases.
Early data suggests that breakthrough cases in Maine are more common among the elderly and people with underlying health conditions, Shah said. Almost all of them are not serious. About half of those vaccinated who tested positive for COVID-19 had no symptoms when contacted by an investigator, according to the CDC in Maine. Only 19 were hospitalized.
Importantly, breakthrough cases have not been associated with one COVID-19 vaccine more than others than others, nor have they been associated with specific variants. He said people who tested positive for the virus after vaccination were exposed in a number of ways.
Because vaccines work by stimulating an immune response, they may be less effective in people with compromised immune systems, such as organ transplant recipients or chemotherapy patients, said Dr. James Jarvis, who leads Northern Light Health's COVID-19 response.
However, Jarvis stressed that vaccines are still incredibly helpful for immunocompromised people, who also tend to be at higher risk for severe COVID-19.
"If I were to tell you that you have a 90 percent chance - if you get COVID-19 - that you will get seriously ill without vaccination, but only have a 50 percent chance if you are vaccinated, then go ahead and do it Vaccines make a big difference to you, "he said." So it's important that people remember that even if your immune response is lower than the general population, it's still better than not being vaccinated at all. "
From a public health perspective, Jarvis noted that there is growing evidence that vaccines limit the spread of the virus. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published last week found that vaccinated health care workers infected with COVID-19 carried lower viral loads and shed fewer viruses, increasing the likelihood of spreading it to others decreased.
This suggests that widespread vaccine uptake may still reduce breakthrough cases in immunocompromised people by reducing the likelihood of exposure to the virus in the first place. Maine began seeing the impact of high vaccination rates on transmission last month, with cases and hospital stays falling rapidly. According to federal data, 64 percent of Mainer have now received at least one vaccine dose.
Letourneau, whose mother died of the virus despite being vaccinated, said she wished she wanted more information on breakthrough cases. If she had known more, despite her mother's vaccination status, she would have taken more precautions and insisted that she get tested and treated when she had the first symptoms.
Caron previously had a lung test due to shortness of breath and was taking an immunosuppressive drug to treat rheumatoid arthritis, Letourneau said. She wonders if this could make the vaccine less effective. But she is also frustrated with the discourse on breakthrough cases, saying that too often people reject potential risks for the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.
"It's almost as casually mentioned how the people this happens to are the elderly and immunocompromised, so it's like they're not that important," she said. "But they are important."
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