Breakthrough COVID infections in vaccinated people are not as common as once believed, but still possible, which begs the question -- can vaccinated individuals develop long hauler symptoms or long COVID?
Long COVID is the term used to describe a variety of symptoms that linger weeks and months after the initial infection can include issues like fatigue, brain fog, headache, muscle pain, and trouble sleeping.
The New York Times notes long COVID is still being studied and is not yet completely understood by medical experts. Some studies estimate 10 to 30 percent of adults infected with COVID (including people who have mild symptoms and no symptoms at all) report developing long-term issues related to their initial infection. Also complicating our understanding of long COVID is the fact that the majority of data on the issue has been collected from unvaccinated people who got COVID and then developed long hauler symptoms.
Do we know enough to determine how likely it is for vaccinated people who have a breakthrough infection to develop lingering symptoms?
“It’s too early to tell. The population of people getting sick post-vaccination isn’t that high right now, and there’s no good tracking mechanism for these patients.” Dr. Zijian Chen, medical director at the Center for Post-Covid Care at Mount Sinai Health System in New York tells the NYT.
A study out of Israel, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, may offer a glimpse into the possibility of developing long COVID after a breakthrough infection. The study -- which only had a small sample size -- looked at 1,497 fully vaccinated health care workers and tracked the 36 people who had a breakthrough infection. The study reported that 6 weeks after their infection, 7 individuals reported lingering symptoms, including prolonged loss of smell, persistent cough, fatigue, weakness, labored breathing, and muscle pain.
The NYT's medical experts say it may take months or longer before we have a better understanding of just how likely long COVID is for people who are vaccinated, but in the meantime, healthcare professionals like Dr. Robert M. Wachter, professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, are taking extra precautions.
“People have said to me, ‘You’re fully vaccinated. Why are you being so careful?’” Dr. Wachter tells the NYT. “I’m still in the camp of I don’t want to get Covid. I don’t want to get a breakthrough infection. “I’m going to take it at face value that one in five people, six weeks after a breakthrough case, continued to feel crummy. That’s enough to make me want to wear two masks when I go into the grocery store, which is not that burdensome anyway.”
One thing is clear regarding long COVID -- the best defense is vaccination, say the NYT's experts. “It’s simple math,” Dr. Athena Akrami, a neuroscientist at University College London, says. “If you reduce infections, then the likelihood of long COVID will drop automatically.”
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