These Bay Area residents have achieved a COVID breakthrough. Here’s what they have to say about the experience



In early July, as the number of COVID-19 cases declined across most of the country and the end of the pandemic seemed almost near, Justin Robinson, 40, flew from San Francisco to New York to visit to a friend. The city was alive and Robinson and his friend were having a blast.

It was the closest moment he had come close to something like pre-pandemic life, and he remembers, vividly, the thrill of being once again sitting in a bar with a drink in front of him. “It was by chance that it was exciting, but actually being in a bar, in a bar…” he said. Simple things, long overdue, sometimes have an unexpected weight.

After his stay in New York was over, Robinson returned home to the Bay Area and noticed that his allergies seemed to be working. It tended to happen every time he traveled. So he went on with his business as usual, until a few mornings later he woke up thinking to himself “I had been swimming on my side for a while and my head had filled with water” .

Later that day, Robinson discovered he was one of tens of thousands of now fully vaccinated Californians to suffer a breakthrough COVID infection. He went through all the emotions one would expect – the frustration that it had happened to him, the fear that he would find himself hospitalized, the anger that so many people still refuse to be vaccinated. In the end, like most of those who have dealt with post-vaccine infections, he primarily experienced COVID as a series of cold symptoms – loss of energy and congestion that seemed to come and go – during about a week.

“I think a lot of people have mistakenly assumed – hoped we were sort of getting out of the pandemic,” Robinson said. “And I think we are constantly being shown that it is not yet.”

In California, of more than 21 million fully vaccinated people, the state has had an estimated 41,000 breakthrough infections. That number, below 0.2%, is almost certainly low, says Dr Peter Chin-Hong, infectious disease specialist at UCSF. It does not take into account minor infections that people consider to be colds or infections found in home tests and never reported. Indeed, anecdotally, a growing number of people know at least one friend, family member or colleague who has tested positive despite being fully vaccinated.

What is better known, however, is how few fully vaccinated people have been admitted to the emergency room (1,379 at last count) and how many have died (119). And it’s worth noting that not all hospital admissions or deaths were necessarily due to COVID infection. Also note: more than 99% of COVID-related deaths in California now occur in the unvaccinated population.

All of this taken together, says Chin-Hong, is proof that, so far, the “vaccine has done its job.” The prospect of breakthrough infections can always be disorienting, he says, and “COVID still has a lot of stigma and meaning.” But, for the vaccinated, it is not yet 2020.

“The most important silver lining is that you’re not really going to get sick, in general,” he says. “You’re not going to go to the intensive care unit and have a breathing tube. And you certainly have a very, very low chance of dying. “

Chin-Hong likes to compare being vaccinated to having an umbrella during a thunderstorm: there’s always a risk of getting wet, you just won’t have to change your clothes.

JR Miller of Oakland is one of the unlucky people to have a breakthrough COVID infection.

Nick Otto / The Chronicle Special

For the most part, JR Miller, 32, says he’s leading a “pretty basic life,” even as Bay Area counties relax their rules. If he doesn’t work in his Oakland home, then he works in outdoor cafes. He goes to the gym a few times a week, but hasn’t gone out to a club in a year. When friends – all vaccinated – came from out of town, they mostly spent their visits hiking or in the wine country.

So two weeks ago when he started to feel sick he was caught off guard. “We had literally started to return to normal life, so the idea that I could be infected was difficult to accept,” he says.

It was like “a bad cold”, which was even worse than he had expected. “I’m double vaxxed and I’m a vegetarian and I go to the gym and drink lots of water,” he says. “I never thought I should go to the hospital, but I was uncomfortable for a few days.”

He has since rebounded and last weekend hiked outside of Redwood City.

According to the ongoing ZOE COVID Symptom Study conducted in collaboration with King’s College London, the top five symptoms of breakthrough COVID infections are headache, runny nose, sore throat, loss of smelling and sneezing, something that was not previously associated with the virus. Essentially, Chin-Hong says, the virus appears to stay localized in the nose and throat of patients. (Those with breakthrough cases can still transmit the virus, and research is underway to determine what percentage of breakthrough cases can lead to long-lasting illness also known as long-term COVID.)

For the past two weeks, Jessica Lefebvre, 50, a homelessness coordinator who lives in West Oakland, has been working out of bed. It wasn’t until she had a cough for the first time that it occurred to her that she might have COVID. Getting tested was a challenge – it’s easier, she says, to find a vaccine. Eventually, however, she stumbled upon a Walgreens with home tests in stock.

Her revolutionary infection hit her in waves. It started with allergies and then turned into headaches and trouble sleeping. For a moment, she thought she was on the mend, only for the aches – worse than her recent recovery from surgery – to resume. “It’s just a roller coaster.”

The whole experience frustrates her, like so many others. She was very careful – “June 15 meant nothing to me,” says Lefebvre, referring to the date of the state reopening. She was always careful, she always wore a mask everywhere. “I guess the part that makes me feel – desperate is the wrong word – helpless is that I did everything right.”

Still, she is grateful for the vaccine. “I’m convinced that if I wasn’t vaccinated I would be in the hospital right now,” she says. His body may hurt, but “I don’t think what I’m going through is serious.” I am not in the hospital. I’m not on a ventilator, I’m not going to die.

JR Miller says his breakthrough COVID infection looked like a bad cold.  He is feeling better now, exercising again as he recovers from the infection.

JR Miller says his breakthrough COVID infection looked like a bad cold. He is feeling better now, exercising again as he recovers from the infection.

Nick Otto / The Chronicle Special

Over and over again, those with breakthrough cases say that if they were to get COVID, they’re happy they got it after the vaccine became available.

Lois Hirsch, 78, a retiree living in Noe Valley, doesn’t know how she caught COVID. Maybe it was the baseball game she had been to. Either way, getting sick wasn’t ideal – she ended up with a fever and cough. Her doctor prescribed her an antibiotic for “a little pneumonia”. And, in the end, she must have missed a wedding full of family and friends, something she was looking forward to.

But more importantly, she says, the vaccine kept her alive. “I just can’t believe there are people out there who won’t get vaccinated,” she said. Hirsch remembers when the polio vaccine came out, how one night after dinner his mother called everyone together and “we went to get our shots right away.

“I don’t remember anyone saying he wasn’t going to get the polio shot. “

If Carter Gibson, 31, had to guess where he caught COVID, it would be the dance party he went to a few weeks ago for a friend’s birthday. There were around 100 people there, but everything was outside and felt safe enough given that he was vaccinated and the number of cases was low.

A few days later, however, he started to feel tired and a home test confirmed that he and his partner tested positive. “I was disappointed, but I was prepared for it,” he says. They talked a lot about risk tolerance, Gibson says. “We kind of figured out already that if we went out we could get it.”

Gibson, who lives in San Francisco, had a sore throat and fatigue; his partner was also coughing. That’s all since past.

“I don’t think we would change anything from what we did,” he said. “We just had bad luck.”

Ryan Kost is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @RyanKost



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