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Vaccinated people still getting coronavirus in NC

Thousands of "breakthrough cases" of coronavirus, in which fully vaccinated people become infected, have been reported in North Carolina.

Posted Updated

Amanda Lamb
, WRAL reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — Thousands of "breakthrough cases" of coronavirus, in which fully vaccinated people become infected, have been reported in North Carolina.

The state Department of Health and Human Services reports that 4,659 breakthrough cases have been reported in North Carolina to date, including 321 hospitalizations and 61 deaths. About half of those cases came in the last two months, accounting for 5.6 percent of the total number of infections in that period, according to DHHS figures.

Medical experts attribute the rise of breakthrough cases to two things: the more contagious Delta variant or the virus is spreading rapidly across the state and the U.S., and society has largely resumed pre-pandemic activities while people have removed their masks.

"I think a lot of people like me assumed we were past this," said Melissa Florer-Bixler, who tested positive for the virus even though she got vaccinated in March. "Just because we were vaccinated wasn’t an excuse to let down our guard."

John Mabe, who was vaccinated in February, was getting tested for the virus on Tuesday, saying he knows he could still become infected.

"Because of a very-low-grade fever and some other symptoms, I thought I would do this to rule out COVID," Mabe said. "I'm hopeful it's not."

Jessica Dixon, an infectious disease specialist at WakeMed, said it's important to remember that getting vaccinated will likely prevent a serious illness or death from the virus in a breakthrough case.

"Post-vaccination infections are still incredibly rare when you look at the entire spectrum of infections that are out there in the entire number of vaccinated people out there," Dixon said. "Very few of those are hospitalized, and, of those, even fewer are going to an ICU. So, I think this is evidence that vaccines are really doing what they were designed to do."

Since vaccines began being administered in North Carolina on Dec. 14, more than 580,000 people have tested positive for coronavirus, so breakthrough cases are less than 1 percent of the state's total. Similarly, people who have died from breakthrough infections are less than 1 percent of the 13,535 coronavirus-related deaths reported in North Carolina to date.

Florer-Bixler said she believes the vaccine helped limit her infection.

"That vaccine saved me from hospitalization, saved me from death [and] protected my 12-year-old, who wasn’t infected," she said.

WakeMed is seeing one to two breakthrough cases a day, Dixon said, many of whom are asymptomatic people who went to the hospital for other issues and were routinely tested.

"I still encourage people to get vaccinated, and don't take the fact that there are breakthrough infections to mean, oh, the vaccines don't work," she said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included statistics about the number of breakthrough cases reported since late May that DHHS officials said was inflated because it included some earlier cases.