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How about COVID-19 breakthrough cases?

In the summary of deaths from COVID-19 they always report that the victim had “underlying conditions” but there is no mention of their vaccination status. Although I am loathe to give anti-vaxxers any excuse not to get vaccinated, I am really curious to know if folks are dying despite being vaccinated.

— Anonymous

The SYA news desk reached out to Jackson County Public Health for this one, and health promotion program manager Tanya Phillips responded by laying out the local health authority’s official position on a question that, it turns out, is somewhat complicated.

First of all, there are two main reasons that vaccination status is not reported in death summaries. First, the county wants to be “conservative in terms of releasing” private information that may identify the COVID-19 patient. To be consistent with the Oregon Health Authority’s policy the county does report “underlying conditions” when it releases information on COVID-19 deaths but does not report specific underlying health conditions. Second, “to understand how well the vaccine is working, it is best to look at a larger population level and not at individual data points.”

Individual data points do exist, just not any that are Jackson County-specific. But the state’s breakthrough case numbers – breakthrough cases are those in which a vaccinated individual tests positive for the illness against which they were vaccinated – show that in general, the COVID-19 vaccines are doing what they were designed to do. According to the OHA, in Oregon, 2.1 million people had completed their COVID-19 vaccine series as of June 30. Of those, there were 1,790 documented breakthrough cases, 191 breakthrough cases that led to hospitalizations and 31 breakthrough case deaths.

According to the OHA’s most recent monthly COVID-19 report, there were 7,241 cases in June and 92% of those were unvaccinated. It’s also worth noting that the majority of the breakthrough infections are, according to the OHA, “asymptomatic, mild or moderate, and do not require hospitalization or result in death.”

The OHA’s COVID-19 reports do include breakthrough case numbers for each of the state’s nine preparedness regions, and for Region 5 (Jackson County and Josephine County), there were 135 breakthrough cases in June. The report expounded: “To date, fewer than 11% of all vaccine breakthrough cases (191) have been hospitalized within two weeks of their positive test results and fewer than 2% (31) have died. The majority of vaccine-breakthrough associated deaths have occurred in the elderly. The median age of the individuals who have died is 83 (range: 57-100 years).”

According to the report, the median age of Oregon’s breakthrough cases in June was 53 years, and 33% of the cases impacted individuals older than 65. Additionally, 10% of Oregon’s June breakthrough cases hit individuals who reside in long-term care facilities, “or other congregate care settings.”

The Jackson County Public Health Department attempted to sum up those numbers: “COVID-19 vaccines are effective and are a critical tool to bring the pandemic under control,” it responded via email. “However, no vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people. There will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die from COVID-19. Vaccine effectiveness studies provide a growing body of evidence that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines offer similar protection in real-world conditions as they have in clinical trial settings, reducing the risk of COVID-19, including severe illness, among people who are fully vaccinated by 90% or more.”

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501 or by email to youasked@rosebudmedia.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.