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Delta variant: 'We’re going to see breakthrough cases' and that's OK, doctor says

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The recent COVID outbreak among the New York Yankees baseball team underscores the fact that the coronavirus vaccines are not 100% effective but are still crucial to preventing hospitalization and death.

“There’s a lot of talk about how people are getting COVID anyway, even though they’re vaccinated, and that is true and that is expected because there’s no vaccine that’s 100% all the time,” Dr. Esther Choo, professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “So we are seeing these breakthrough cases. Many of them are asymptomatic, totally without symptoms, and they’re getting tested as part of contact tracing or other screening so that they can go on to certain activities or they have very mild symptoms.”

In the case of the Yankees, there are reportedly six players who tested positive, including All-Star Aaron Judge. According to reports, five of the six players are vaccinated and asymptomatic and were only tested as part of contact tracing protocol. The remaining player is unvaccinated and was the one displaying symptoms, though the identity of that player has not been publicized.

Jul 13, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; American League right fielder Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees (99) at bat against the American League during the second inning of the 2021 MLB All Star Game at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge at bat against the National League during the second inning of the 2021 MLB All Star Game at Coors Field. (Photo Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

“For us, this should be a big illustrative case of how this can go down,” Choo said. “The fortunate thing is that nobody is gravely ill. We know for sure that three of the players in the Yankees are vaccinated and did test positive. And so, we’re seeing what we know to be true, which is we’re going to see breakthrough cases.”

All of the vaccines approved in the U.S. protect against serious illness and death. Pfizer (PFE)'s and Moderna (MRNA)’s vaccines are 95% and 94.1% effective against basic illness, respectively, while Johnson & Johnson (JNJ)’s vaccine is 72% effective. (According to Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, all three vaccines were used among the six players.)

As of July 6, there was a 0.003% chance of a severe breakthrough case of COVID.

“Even when there are breakthrough cases, for now, we’re seeing that people still have protections that are keeping them from becoming seriously ill, getting hospitalized, and being at higher risk for death,” Choo said. “This remains a very successful vaccine [initiative], and the message is people still need to get vaccinated. It does mean that we can’t really rest on our laurels.”

Why wearing masks is still important amid the Delta variant

The Delta variant now accounts for a majority of COVID cases in the U.S., according to the CDC. And while the vaccines are reportedly effective against it, the strain is said to be more contagious than other variants that emerged earlier in the pandemic.

“I think in a lot of places, as restaurants and other businesses opened, we have started to feel like we’re coming out of this,” Choo said. “But the Delta variant has really changed the equation. So in places like LA, where cases are surging and hospitalizations and deaths are surging, we do need to loop back to safety measures that were in place a few months ago. Things like universal mask-wearing indoors.”

It’s unclear whether fully vaccinated individuals can still transmit the disease to others, which is part of the reason why doctors like Choo continue to wear their masks in hospitals even though most of them are fully vaccinated.

“We can’t say: ‘I’m vaccinated so there’s no chance that I can acquire or spread COVID,’” Choo said. “That’s why in many settings like hospitals, even though we have really high vaccination rates, we continue to wear masks. We have medically vulnerable patients. There’s not a zero chance of transmission, even with full vaccination. There’s a lot of variability depending on the host.”

People walk past bubbles near the Santa Monica Pier as crowds gather on Memorial Day as shutdowns are relaxed more than a year after Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns began, in Santa Monica, California on May 31, 2021. (Photo by DAVID MCNEW / AFP) (Photo by DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images)
People walk past bubbles near the Santa Monica Pier as crowds gather on Memorial Day as shutdowns are relaxed in Santa Monica, Calif. on May 31, 2021. (Photo by DAVID MCNEW/AFP)

“If I have some sort of immunocompromise that keeps things from a full response to the vaccine, I may be more vulnerable,” she continued. “So there are a lot of exceptions. There are certainly settings and times and places where we need to continue mask-wearing even with vaccination, but it’s a layer of protection that's extremely effective still to date.”

Los Angeles County is among a group of places across the country that have reverted back to implementing face mask mandates in response to the growing number of cases — most of which have been attributed to unvaccinated individuals, which Choo described as “good news for the vaccinated.”

“In LA County, all of the hospitalized cases are among the unvaccinated, and we’re seeing the same pattern among deaths,” she said. “Above 99% of hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated. We’re seeing that this disease is largely preventable now, and we really need to continue pushing for vaccination everywhere and in every population.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at adriana@yahoofinance.com.

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