A staff member applies an alcohol swap before administering a vaccine to a patient at a new mass vaccination clinic located at UWM Sports Complex in Pontiac, on Friday, April 2, 2021. (Mike Mulholland | lifwynnfoundation.org)Mike Mulholland | lifwynnfoundation.org

For months, doctors have been adamant that the clear majority of patients they see in need of medical care for COVID-19 have not gotten fully vaccinated prior to infection.

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Not only are vaccinated individuals better protected against severe cases of COVID-19, health officials say they are more likely to develop “mild-to-moderate” symptoms if they are infected with coronavirus.

“A bad cold would be the best way to describe it,” said Dr. Liam Sullivan, an infectious disease specialist for Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.

Sullivan ran through a list of common symptoms in breakthrough cases, most of which are isolated in the upper-respiratory tract, like sneezing, nasal congestion, sinus pressure, headache, and runny nose. In some cases, individuals report fever, fatigue, sore throat, coughing, nausea, gastrointestinal issues, and loss of taste and smell.

What’s notably absent in most breakthrough cases, Sullivan added, is the symptoms that would indicate the virus has reached the lungs. There’s rarely reports of the trouble breathing that unvaccinated people face, and if there is a fever and/or cough, it’s less severe for those who have some level of protection against the virus.

“If you’re vaccinated, it’s mostly confined from here up,” Sullivan said, signaling from his chin to the top of his head. “That’s exactly what the vaccine was designed to do.

The available COVID-19 vaccines work by teaching the body’s cells how to make a protein found in the coronavirus. That triggers an immune response then, and results in quicker immune responses in case of future coronavirus infections.

“Respiratory viruses, they initiate infection in your nasal tract ... that’s where they setup shop and they start replicating and if you don’t have any immunity to this virus in particular, the virus goes down lower into the respiratory tract and makes it way into your lungs and that’s when things can get really bad,” Sullivan said.

“The virus is still able to infect your nasal tract and start replicating, but the immune system, because it recognizes the virus after you’ve been vaccinated, it kicks into gear within 24-48 hours of infection, whereas if you didn’t have immunity, it could take 5-7 days to kick in.”

Breakthrough cases typically last about a week, give or take a few days. Some people are asymptomatic, while others experience a worse illness than the flu.

Jody Watts, 50, of Portage was one of the less lucky breakthrough cases. While she didn’t experience respiratory symptoms, her illness stretched about 12 days and included gastrointestinal symptoms, abdominal pain, body aches, low-grade fever, headaches and general fatigue.

Watts was among the first wave to be vaccinated back in December 2020. When she felt ill last month, she thought she had food poisoning, before testing positive for COVID-19.

Comparing her bout with COVID to her 2015 case of influenza, she said the coronavirus resulted in more time off work and longer-lasting symptoms than the flu.

Over the last eight months, more than 91% of hospital patients with COVID-19 were unvaccinated, as were more than 91% of the state’s 6,033 COVID-19 deaths during that stretch.

When health care workers do see breakthrough cases end up in hospital rooms, it’s typically because they have weakened immune systems due to age, medications or another condition that kept their bodies from having a strong initial response to the vaccine.

“We’re not seeing healthy, vaccinated 40-year-olds getting admitted to the hospital with COVID,” said Dr. Sullivan. “They get the bad cold, they’re at home for 10 days, they recover and they go about their lives.”

For those who become infected with coronavirus after being fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends isolating for 10 days, beginning from the start of your symptoms or when you had your test done -- whichever came first.

If your symptoms have improved and you don’t have a fever after 10 days, health officials say it’s OK to return to your normal routine without fear of being contagious.

In most cases, fully vaccinated individuals won’t need to seek medical care after developing COVID-19. Although, symptoms to watch out for that could require medical attention include severe shortness of breathe, prolonged high fever, and severe weakness.

As of Sept. 28, about 32,800 of the more than 5.26 million Michiganders who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 have had breakthrough cases. That’s about 0.7%.

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