A month after getting her second AstraZeneca jab, 45-year-old Tara in Chester was staying with family for the first time in months when she woke up with a sore throat. “I’d done a lateral flow test before visiting and it was negative,” she tells The Independent. “But that morning, my husband messaged to say he’d tested positive for Covid-19. I had what felt like a bad summer cold – nothing worse than that. I took another test and I was positive too.
“I’m not embarrassed to say that I bawled my eyes out. After everything that has happened, I was in total shock. I had only just started going out again. The worst thing for me was the thought that I had put my family in danger. They had to isolate and, thankfully, were all fine.”
Tara was one of a growing number of so-called “vaccine breakthrough cases” – fully vaccinated people who catch coronavirus.
Over 48 million people in the UK have received their first jab, with more than 75 per cent of adults now being double jabbed. Contrary to some popular misconceptions, Covid vaccines do not totally prevent you from catching the virus. They are important because they reduce your risk of getting seriously ill or dying, according to the NHS, and they do reduce your risk of catching or spreading it. As well as protecting against variants, such as the Delta variant.
With social distancing restrictions ending in August and the highly transmissible Delta now accounting for almost all current UK cases, it was somewhat inevitable that case numbers would increase again. But health experts insist that vaccines are still the only way out of this pandemic – even if we require boosters in future – because they mitigate serious illness.
“By July, it was estimated that vaccines had already prevented 22 million infections and 60,000 deaths in England alone,” Dr Emeka Okorocha explains to The Independent. “Several UK studies indicate that a single dose of all the vaccines is between 55 and 75 per cent effective against symptomatic disease, with higher levels of protection against severe disease including hospitalisation and death. Additional protection is seen after a second dose, at which point you’re over 90 per cent protected against hospitalisation.”
Nilam, 28, from London, was scared when she caught Covid after being double vaccinated because she has asthma. However, her mild symptoms – headache, sore throat, loss of taste and smell – only lasted for a few days. She noticed a big contrast between these symptoms and her boyfriend’s: “He’d only had his first jab, and he had a bad fever for four days. I expected to feel really bad because of my asthma, but I have no doubt that the Pfizer double vax eased symptoms. The only thing is that my smell hasn’t returned and everything tastes funny now, so I think that might be a sign of long Covid.”
Dr Rachel Ward, an NHS GP, says that research into long Covid – the continuation of Covid symptoms beyond 12 weeks after initial infection – is ongoing in order to understand the full benefit of vaccination. However, she notes that long Covid symptoms are more common after severe infection. Dr Ward also warns that it is “certainly not impossible” to get Covid for a second time after being vaccinated: “It looks likely that your previous immune challenges will give you very good protection for severe illness, but for how long, it is unknown.”
The results from a recent React trial reported that people who have been double-jabbed are half as likely to be infected with coronavirus. For 26-year-old kit in Bournemouth, this didn’t stop the need to be vigilant and stick to isolation after catching it. “I was certainly just as worried about spreading the virus as I would have been pre-jab,” he says.
“I caught it three months after my second AstraZeneca vaccine. I’d describe my symptoms over the following four days as feeling like a flu: heavy fatigue and muscle and joint pain. I also lost my senses of smell and taste for two weeks. I have a couple of friends – previously in very good health – who are now suffering from long covid. This plays on my mind, as I imagine the vaccine kept me safe from having to cope with that.”
Another study, conducted by Oxford researchers in partnership with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Department of Health and Social Care, reported that vaccinated and unvaccinated people can still have similar viral loads when they contract the Delta variant.
Nadia, 35, Glasgow, was surprised when she caught the virus five days after her girlfriend tested positive, but believes it would have been worse if they weren’t both vaccinated: “I’d had my second AstraZeneca jab about three weeks earlier, and she was fully vaxxed too – the media kept saying ‘breakthrough infections’ were quite rare so we just thought she’d been unlucky and that I probably wouldn’t catch it. But I got insane fatigue and a headache, followed by a stuffy nose, a sore throat and a mild fever. This dragged on for about a week, and it was pretty unpleasant, but I bet without the jab it would’ve been a lot more serious.”
Dr Ward explains that, although vaccinated people are infectious for a shorter period of time, the study proves they can certainly still pass on Covid to others: “But we do not know how much this happens compared to unvaccinated groups. It highlights that you cannot rely on those around you having the vaccine for your protection; each individual benefits from being vaccinated themselves.”
As we approach autumn in a restriction-free UK, now is the most important time to take up the vaccine if you haven’t already, according to Dr Okorocha. “And even after getting vaccinated, you should continue to practice social distancing, wearing a face mask, washing your hands carefully and frequently, and opening windows to let fresh air in,” he advises.
The key thing to remember when watching the case numbers rise simultaneously with the vaccination rollout, Dr Ward adds, is: “When we consider the death rates and hospitalisation rates that we saw in the UK last winter when we had equivalent rates of Covid, we can instantly appreciate the benefit of vaccination. Because we have managed to reduce death rates and pressures on the NHS, we have been able to remove restrictions which is so important for all of us, moving forward.”