Asking if breakthrough infections are rare misses the point

Let’s take a look at where the 1-in-5,000 figure comes from. Leonhardt was trying to assess whether breakthrough infections are rare or not. He reviewed daily infection reports from a few jurisdictions that track breakthrough infections including Utah, Virginia, and King County in Washington state. He decided the numbers were trustworthy and could be applied nationally. He also identified other locations that reported only 1 in 10,000 daily infections. Interpreting the data, he writes, “Here’s one way to think about a one-in-10,000 daily chance: It would take more than three months for the combined risk to reach just 1 percent.” If his math is correct, one may indeed argue that a 1 percent risk over three months qualifies as rare. Although it unfortunately seems likely the pandemic, and therefore our exposure to the virus, will last far longer than three more months.

Leonhardt is wrong, however, to take these health department reports at face value. Overall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that less than 25 percent of infections are confirmed through testing. This underreporting problem is likely worse for people who are vaccinated—their symptoms tend to be milder and they are less likely to be tested in a health care setting. Another problem is that health departments struggle to confirm whether an infected person has in fact been vaccinated…

The bottom line here is that vaccination is not an individual’s golden ticket out of the pandemic. Despite what CDC Director Rochelle Walensky says, this is not just a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Instead, we are all in this together, because we breathe the same virus-filled air. In recent weeks, about 15 percent of COVID deaths have been among the vaccinated. If this trend holds and we allow another 100,000 people to die of COVID, that will include 15,000 deaths of people who followed the government’s advice and got vaccinated.