Breakthrough coronavirus infections canceled a midweek Broadway performance of Disney’s “Aladdin” just one night after it had reopened for the first time in 18 months, a high-profile sign of how increasing cases among the vaccinated are bedeviling efforts to move beyond the pandemic.
Producers notified the audience just before 7 p.m. that its “rigorous” testing protocols detected the cases within the repertory company at The New Amsterdam Theatre.
“Because the wellness and safety of our guests, casts and crew are our top priority, tonight’s performance, Wednesday, September 29th, is canceled,” the producers tweeted.
Audience members were promised refunds, though the episode shined a light on infections among vaccinated persons that are being reported with frequency and complicating efforts to reopen, out of fear the virus will spread.
Harvard Business School, for example, recently moved its MBA classes online after a spate of breakthrough cases.
Public health experts say they expect breakthrough infections to be reported with great frequency as more people are vaccinated and society emerges from seclusion and mingles.
There are also fears that immunity from approved vaccines is waning over time, right as the fast-moving delta variant of the coronavirus becomes dominant in America.
Unvaccinated persons were 10 times more likely than vaccinated persons to get infected before the delta hit and only five times more likely after it arrived, according to a study in Los Angeles County in California that tracked people from May to July.
New York state health officials reported that in early May, vaccinated residents had a 91.9% lower chance of becoming a COVID-19 case compared to unvaccinated ones.
They said effectiveness declined mid-July — around the time the delta variant took hold — though the decline plateaued in early September to vaccinated persons having a 77.2% lower chance of infection.
All told, New York has reported 86,860 lab-confirmed breakthrough cases of COVID-19 among fully-vaccinated people as of Sunday, or 0.7% of fully-vaccinated people 12-years or older.
Officials in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, said they are seeing more breakthrough infections and 23% of COVID-19 patients at Lancaster General Health are vaccinated, though bad outcomes remain rare.
“It’s typical for what’s going on around the country, but if you look at the number of people in the ICU, that percentage is much lower. If you look at the number of vaccinated people who actually die from COVID, that number is extremely small, and that gives you the benefit of the vaccine,” Dr. Joseph Kontra, chief of infectious diseases at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, told ABC 27-WHTM News.
That pattern is prompting scientists to remind Americans that available vaccines were designed to avoid the worst outcomes from COVID-19, such as hospitalization and death, so people should get used to a paradigm in which society tries to push the virus into the background as a problem akin to seasonal flu or a bad cold.
New York reported that vaccinated residents have an 89.7% to 95.2% lower chance of being hospitalized with COVID-19, compared to unvaccinated New Yorkers. It recorded 6,083 hospitalizations among the vaccinated overall, or 0.05% of those vaccinated.
Reports of breakthrough infections on social media follow a familiar pattern, with people reporting a not-so-fun experience and loss of smell, though say their bout might have been worse without the vaccine.
“I’m feeling under the weather, but am grateful for the protection from severe illness offered by safe and effective vaccines,” tweeted Ned Price, a State Department spokesman who decided this week to self-isolate after experiencing symptoms.
Comedian Chris Rock, who got vaccinated and then got infected in mid-September, also suggested things might have been worse: “Hey guys I just found out I have COVID, trust me you don’t want this. Get vaccinated.”
One trend that stands out is that elderly people continue to be the most conflicted by COVID-19, even among the vaccinated.
Doctors in Louisiana and elsewhere told cable outlets their worst-off patients amid the late-summer surge in the Sun Belt tended to be older persons who struggle to mount an effective immune response.
The Yale New Haven Health System found that among 969 individuals who tested positive for the virus during a 14-week period from March to July, 54 were fully vaccinated. Fourteen had critical cases and required supplementary oxygen support — four of them were admitted to the intensive care unit and three died.
“These cases are extremely rare, but they are becoming more frequent as variants emerge and more time passes since patients are vaccinated,” said Hyung Chun, associate professor of medicine at Yale and senior author of the study published Sept. 7 in “Lancet Infectious Diseases.”
The patients tended to be older, with a median age of 80.5 and some had existing conditions like heart disease or diabetes.
“Identifying who is more likely to develop severe COVID-19 illness after vaccination will be critical to ongoing efforts to mitigate the impact of these breakthrough infections,” Dr. Chun said.
The Food and Drug Administration recently approved booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for persons 65 and older, those with underlying conditions and people in jobs with high risk of exposure, reflecting government-level fears about breakthrough infections and waning immunity.
Advisers to the FDA said there wasn’t enough data yet on whether younger people in the general population will need boosters, so they might revisit the issue.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only tracks reports of breakthrough infections resulting in hospitalization or death. The agency says it has received 19,136 reports of vaccinated persons who were hospitalized or died with COVID-19, including 4,493 deaths.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently chastised the CDC for deciding on May 1 to focus on the worst outcomes, saying it’s forced the nation to fly blind as it tries to understand how the virus is impacting the vaccinated.
“We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, and national, state, local, and tribal leaders, as well as vaccine developers, are having to make decisions about how best to protect Americans against COVID-19,” they wrote Tuesday in a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky requesting a briefing on agency efforts. “In addition, the threat that COVID-19 poses to our nation continues to evolve. For example, the situation we were facing in April is very different than the situation we are currently facing due to the Delta variant. Providing decision-makers with better, more complete data and information on breakthrough infections will be essential as they continue to respond to this evolving pandemic.”
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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