Here Are The Facts About Getting COVID After You’ve Been Vaccinated

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Alliance for Health Equity and Practice Director Alok Sarwal draws up a syringe of Moderna vaccine while volunteering at a COVID 19 vaccination clinic hosted by Second Chance Center in Aurora on Friday, May 14, 2021. SCC is a nonprofit that helps the formerly incarcerated re-establish successful lives in the community.

Matthew Pinto, 25, was ready for a vacation after months of social deprivation due to COVID-19. So he and his girlfriend flew to Colorado, where Pinto grew up, for a two-week visit in late March.   

Pinto, who lives in New York City, felt comfortable traveling. He had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine nearly four weeks earlier and was considered fully vaccinated.

His girlfriend, on the other hand, hadn’t been vaccinated yet. 

Pinto wasn’t that concerned about either of them. They wore double masks on the flight. 

“I was like, alright. This is great,” Pinto said. 

Courtesy of Lorillard and Pinto
Alexa Lorillard and Matthew Pinto, who are both recovering from cases of COVID-19 they likely acquired during a Vail vacation. Lorillard was not vaccinated, but Pinto fully was.

Once in Colorado, the two visited Vail for a weekend, skied and went to a restaurant to meet a couple of friends. One friend had already had COVID, and the other had received the first dose of vaccine. Pinto said the place was a little crowded at the front, but they wore their masks on the way to their table and he wasn’t that concerned. 

And Pinto thinks it might have been the next day, while they were still in the resort town, that the virus struck his girlfriend — though he’ll never know for sure. 

More surprising: He caught it too.

“We were kind of just shopping around in Vail, going into these little stores ... and some people weren't wearing their masks,” Pinto recalled. “But we had our masks on the entire time.”

It started with a minor headache felt by Pinto’s girlfriend, Alexa Lorillard. Then, Pinto started feeling it too. 

“We felt every possible symptom under a COVID checklist. We were exhausted. We had these terrible aches, and a cough,” Pinto said.

A test confirmed they both had COVID-19. Pinto was surprised, especially since he thought he was protected.

“We felt like we didn’t do anything that crazy,” Pinto said. “And then we were sick.” 

Pinto didn’t get as sick as his girlfriend and while they both lost their sense of smell and taste, he got his back more quickly. He attributes that to having been fully vaccinated. 

If a vaccinated person catches COVID, their cases are generally milder.

Like Pinto, a small percentage of those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will get sick but there’s evidence vaccines will make the illness less serious.

“We expect some breakthrough cases,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, a pediatrician in Denver who is vice chairman of the committee on infectious diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “But for the people who do [have breakthrough cases], their cases are generally mild and they tend to be less likely to spread the infection to others.”

Dr. O’Leary notes he hasn’t seen or heard of any breakthrough cases among his 16- and 17-year-old patients who’ve been eligible for the vaccine for a while, though it’s a small sample since younger patients 12 and over just recently became eligible.

State data confirms these breakthrough cases are rare. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, just one in about 1,100 of those who have been fully vaccinated in the state have contracted COVID-19. Still, if vaccinated people are suspicious they’ve contracted the virus, they should be tested and if positive, isolate themselves. 

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is the vaccine Pinto and his girlfriend received, had a slightly lower efficacy rate than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, but like the others, was highly effective in preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death.

What about the highly contagious Delta variant?

Even the expansion of the "Delta" variant throughout the state has had a comparatively small impact on the vaccinated population. It is perhaps twice as transmissible as the original version of the virus that causes COVID-19, allowing it to spread more rapidly through the unvaccinated population. A new study published July 8 in Nature also found that a single dose of the vaccine made by Pfizer and used extensively in Colorado was inefficient in fighting the Delta variant, opening the door to infection. A fully immunized person with two doses, however, receives solid protection against even the Delta variant.

The bottom line is, getting vaccinated works.

The CDC does make clear in a section of its website on breakthrough cases that there is the risk that a fully vaccinated person could get severely ill and that  some “will still be hospitalized and die.” But it goes on to emphasize that scenario is unlikely — even with the spread of the Delta variant.

The bottom line, say O’Leary and other doctors, is that the vaccine works and people should get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

And doctors like Ken Lyn-Kew, a pulmonary and critical care physician for National Jewish Health in Denver said thanks to the arrival of vaccines, his ICU is like night and day compared to last year at this time.  

“We had people dying everyday from COVID in our ICU,” recounts Dr. Lyn-Kew. “Now we have a much lower number of patients, so the vaccine is definitely doing its job.” 

As for Matthew Pinto, he and his girlfriend have recovered from COVID-19 and have been healthy since ... and he says he still tries to wear his mask whenever he leaves his apartment.