Rising breakthrough COVID-19 cases cause hassles, health worries

A couple in front of their house.
Jeannie and Elliott Clark in front of their Rochester, Minn., house. In August, Jeannie started to feel sick, and her illness turned out to be a breakthrough case of COVID-19. Within days, the rest of her family was sick, too, and their isolation at home lasted about a month.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Back in August, Jeannie Clark woke up with a tickle in her throat. 

"I'd run 3 miles that morning, just a tickle,” she said. 

But Clark, a pediatric nurse in Rochester, decided to stay home and get tested, just to be safe — even though she had been fully vaccinated in early 2021.

"That evening, I got my test results back and was shocked that it was positive for COVID,” she said. 

Clark’s initial breakthrough case set into motion a cascade of events for her family, including overlapping quarantines and weeks off work that stretched on for about a month.  

Breakthrough cases — contracting COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated — are still unlikely; about 2 percent of Minnesotans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 experience them, and far less than 1 percent of those people are hospitalized or die. 

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But as more people are vaccinated and immunity wanes against the contagious delta variant, breakthrough cases are becoming more common. According to the latest data, about 40 percent of current COVID-19 cases are breakthrough cases. 

"These vaccines are remarkable, but they're not perfect,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “If they were perfect, we wouldn't have any breakthrough cases. And what we're learning about these vaccines is that booster doses are going to be very important to continuing to provide that protection that we first had after we got those first doses.”

People sit in chairs after getting their COVID-19 booster shot.
A patient takes a selfie with their vaccination card in the observation area after receiving their booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during an Oakland County Health Department vaccination clinic at the Southfield Pavilion in Southfield, Mich.
Emily Elconin | Getty Images file

A monthlong quarantine

At first, Jeannie Clark tried to isolate herself in one room of the house. But her kids, who were too young to receive the vaccine at that time, developed COVID-19 symptoms. So did her fully vaccinated husband, Elliott, who had been taking care of the children. 

Both Jeannie and Elliott Clark received monoclonal antibodies — a treatment meant to help COVID-19-positive patients stay out of the hospital. Elliott Clark said they helped, but not entirely. 

"I got to a point where, you know, [I was] walking up the stairs and kind of out of breath at the top, which is annoying,” Elliot Clark said. 

But Jeannie Clark, who has a history of asthma, was quite sick.

"I lost my sense of smell and my sense of taste. I got a really bad cough,” she said.

Financial worries

The Clarks said they're lucky to have plenty of paid time off from their employers, who were understanding of their situation.

But for single mom Fiona Burgdorf, who lives in Minneapolis, being able to pay rent is a very real concern. 

Burgdorf is currently home battling a breakthrough case of COVID-19. As an ESL teacher, she gets 10 paid sick days a year, and she's already used five. 

Now, Burgdorf is burning through her remaining time off. She said if she doesn't return to work soon, she'll have to take unpaid leave in the future if she or one of her kids gets another illness. 

"I'm not really sure what I'm going to do the rest of the school year if I get sick because taking unpaid days is going to make it hard to pay my rent because I live in Minneapolis and my rent is more than 40 percent of my income,” she said. 

Meanwhile, another Minneapolis resident Kurt Decker has been battling his own breakthrough illness. He's the general manager of two running gear outfitters in the Twin Cities metro area. Some of his colleagues have breakthrough cases, too, causing staff scheduling headaches.

"So all of a sudden — boom, boom, three people [were sick],” he said. “That was really stressful."

Decker, 50, runs and bikes constantly, so he's in good shape. But he says his breakthrough case has been brutal.

"It got really bad. I was wheezing, having a hard time breathing and my chest was sore," he said. 

Osterholm said the shots still provide a tremendous amount of protection.

"We know that there's anywhere from [a] six- to elevenfold increased risk of getting infected if you're not vaccinated, versus those that are vaccinated,” he said. “Second of all, there's at least a twentyfold increased risk of dying of COVID than if you're vaccinated."

Back in Rochester, Jeannie Clark and her family's seemingly endless quarantine and isolation was hard. But it's far better than what could have happened if she hadn't been vaccinated in the first place, she said. 

“We weren't talking about ‘OK, who's gonna watch the kids while mom is in the hospital,’ ” said Jeannie Clark.