Breakthrough COVID-19 cases worrying you about getting vaccine? Experts say it shouldn’t.

As COVID-19 vaccination numbers rise amid the spread of the delta variant of the virus, breakthrough cases of those who have been vaccinated have continued, resulting in some people who have been reluctant to be vaccinated to further doubt the vaccines. 

In recent months, notable people who had received vaccinations, including members of the New York Yankees, three U.S. senators and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was hospitalized this week, have all tested positive for the coronavirus.

Dr. Rupali Limaye, an associate scientist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has studied vaccine hesitancy for more than a decade and understands the concerns of seeing vaccinated people still test positive for the coronavirus. She said that when people see instances of breakthrough cases, they tend to think the problem is worse than they thought. 

“If we take this and look at it at a population level, the risk of you having a breakthrough infection is really, really, really quite low. However, your perception of that risk changes. If you're like, ‘Well, my friend got it,’” Limaye told USA TODAY. “You essentially overestimate what is your level of susceptibility to a breakthrough infection.”

Despite the low chances of getting the virus while vaccinated, studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines declined in New York when the delta variant became more common. But the CDC stopped tracking breakthrough cases in May. 

Despite not knowing how many of the rising number of positive cases are occurring vaccinated people, Dr. Otto Yang, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at UCLA, doesn’t believe it should stray people from the vaccine. 

“What’s very reassuring is that in those cases that we hear about, these people do quite well and are not sick. It actually highlights the fact that the vaccines are still very protective,” Yang said, adding that more often than not, he believes breakthrough cases go unreported.

“My suspicion is that these breakthrough infections are actually fairly common, but most of them are so mild that they're not even being diagnosed because people don't even have any symptoms or the symptoms are so mild and go away so quickly, they don't even notice,” he said.

Yang’s words echo what Dr. Amy Edwards, an infectious disease specialist and associate director of infection control at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, told USA TODAY last week. “You very rarely hear of somebody with breakthrough COVID on a ventilator.” 

Yang also noted it shouldn’t be a shock to see athletes, regardless of vaccination status, test positive. Many leagues have issued percentage thresholds to loosen restrictions, although some may be put back in place.

“It's worth pointing out that the people who are professional athletes, for example, they're in very crowded situations and locker rooms and around crowds of people. So it's not surprising that they're having a lot of exposure,” Yang said. 

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Limaye hopes the news of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine being approved by the Food and Drug Administration will encourage unvaccinated people to get inoculated. Through all the doubts about whether the shot is safe and effective, she advises those to consider that dealing with no symptoms or mild symptoms is better than the alternative, as is the case with most vaccinations.

“Is the vaccine still doing what we really want it to do, which is prevent death? The answer is yes,” she said. “That's really what we should be measuring for any advocacy of any therapeutic product: Does it prevent you from dying? That's more important than could you still get it but get a mild case of it.”

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jord_mendoza.