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More than 123 million people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated against COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and that means people are becoming more and more hopeful that the pandemic will soon come to an end. But there are still some causes for concern in regards to the virus, including the increased attention on COVID cases among those who are fully vaccinated, known in the medical community as "breakthrough infections." But not all COVID cases are created equal, it turns out. In a May 16 interview on CBS's Face the Nation, White House chief COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, revealed the key difference between vaccinated people who get COVID and unvaccinated people with the virus.
During his Face the Nation interview, Fauci was asked about how vaccinated people who are infected but don't develop COVID symptoms compare to unvaccinated asymptomatic COVID patients. He explained that "even though there are breakthrough infections with vaccinated people, almost always the people are asymptomatic, and the level of virus is so low, it makes it extremely unlikely, not impossible, but very, very low likelihood that they are going to transmit it."
Fauci noted that the level of the virus that's found in a vaccinated person's nasopharynx, the upper part of the throat located between the nose, is "considerably lower" than an unvaccinated person with the virus. "Whereas when people who are getting infected, who were without symptoms, who are not vaccinated, generally the titer or the level of virus, relatively speaking, is higher than in the vaccinated individuals," Fauci explained.
That means a vaccinated person with COVID is much less likely to pass the virus on than an unvaccinated person, even if both don't have symptoms.
According to the CDC's data as of mid-April, vaccinated people only have a 0.008 percent chance of getting COVID. The reason it's possible at all is because the vaccines are not 100 percent effective at preventing infection, but they are nearly that successful at preventing severe cases or death. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were about 95 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID, and 100 percent efficacious against severe disease in clinical trials. Meanwhile, the single-dose Johnson&Johnson vaccine is 72 percent effective at preventing COVID infections and 85 percent effective at preventing severe cases, the company said in a statement.
Ultimately, Fauci explained, vaccines are the key to ending the pandemic. "When you get vaccinated, you not only protect your own health, that of the family, but also you contribute to the community health by preventing the spread of the virus," Fauci said. "You become a dead end to the virus. And when there are a lot of dead ends around, the virus is not going to go anywhere. … The more people you get vaccinated, the safer the entire community is."