By Jeb Bladine • President / Publisher • 

Bladine: Breakthrough stats defy easy analysis

It was clear from the beginning – about 6 months ago – that any investigation of COVID-19 “breakthrough” cases would not only be a moving target, but soon would become a statistical nightmare.

Early on, Oregon Health Authority essentially acknowledged the challenge by declining to answer detailed questions about the breakthrough reports. Since the state agency had been so helpful and forthcoming with other COVID information requests, we knew there was turmoil in the world of breakthrough analysis.

Numbers aside, here’s what we do know, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“Vaccine breakthrough infections are expected. COVID-19 vaccines … are not 100% effective. Fully vaccinated people with a vaccine breakthrough infection are less likely to develop serious illness than those who are unvaccinated and get COVID-19 … This means they are much less likely to be hospitalized or die than people who are not vaccinated.”

But here’s the CDC kicker: “People who get vaccine breakthrough infections can be contagious.”

Can be? Are? Might become? Those are among the most vexing questions of the pandemic these days, because breakthrough COVID cases can be hugely disruptive in terms of lost work and pay, missed schooling and family quarantines.

In recent months, about 25 percent of reported Oregon COVID-19 cases have been among fully vaccinated people. But actually, the number is higher … maybe much higher. As OHA states:

“Many vaccine breakthrough cases are believed to experience no symptoms or minimal symptoms. These cases are unlikely to undergo testing for COVID-19 and be reported to public health. Therefore, the true number of vaccine breakthrough cases is unknown.”

So, it seems that many of our breakthrough case statistics document a black hole of uncertainty. We read reports that about 1 percent of reported breakthrough cases result in death — that compares to about 1.6 percent among all COVID cases nationwide — but both percentages would be much smaller if we knew how many breakthrough cases there actually are.

But again, we know a few things:

The vaccines protect people from serious illness, hospitalization and death; unvaccinated people are putting themselves and others at unnecessary risk; the passionate debate over mandatory vaccinations for COVID-19 needs to be held in with background signs showing the national COVID death toll nearing 800,000.

In Oregon, as elsewhere, hospitals are at capacity. The COVID pandemic continues; it’s flu season; people are sicker; staffing levels are below needs. People declining COVID vaccines are a big part of that problem.

Jeb Bladine can be reached at jbladine@newsregister.com or 503-687-1223.

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