COVID-19 infections in people already vaccinated against the coronavirus appear to be extremely rare in New Jersey, according to new state data that suggests COVID-19 vaccines protect the vast majority of people from infection and severe illness.
State health officials announced Wednesday that of the nearly 2.2 million people vaccinated against COVID-19 in the first four months of New Jersey’s vaccination program, 1,319 had later been diagnosed with the virus, meaning 0.06% were subject to so-called breakthrough infection. That means 99.94% of the immunized individuals did not get infected, a level slightly higher than those recorded in the most successful clinical trials of the inoculations.
“No vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness, so some cases among fully vaccinated individuals are expected,” state Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said at the state’s pandemic briefing. “This high percentage demonstrates that breakthrough infections are extremely rare,” she said.
Among those who do suffer breakthrough infections, the COVID-19 vaccines — made by drug companies Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — also helped reduce the likelihood of severe illness, Persichilli said. “As expected, people who were fully vaccinated had less severe illness based on the small number of hospitalizations and deaths,” she said.
Persichilli said that of the 1,319 immunized individuals who were infected, 92 — or 0.004% of those vaccinated — were hospitalized, but only 30 of them were for reasons related to COVID-19. Fourteen of these patients died — or 0.0006% — but just seven of the fatalities were attributed to the virus, she added. Advanced age and chronic health conditions can put people at greater risk for contracting COVID-19, experts note, and can also lead to unrelated illness and death.
Dr. Edward Lifshitz, who heads the Department of Health’s infectious disease program and oversaw the data analysis, noted all those hospitalized with breakthrough cases in New Jersey were older than age 50 and half the admissions, and deaths, involved patients at least 80 years old. Given the limited data to date, he declined to say what forms of the vaccine were involved with the breakthroughs.
“The vaccines we have are not perfect, but they are pretty close. And they are literally lifesavers,” Lifshitz said. During the four months included in the data review, more than 3,500 unvaccinated people died of COVID-19, he noted.
A vaccine passport?
Nearly 4.3 million New Jerseyans are now fully vaccinated — the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines involve two doses — through a program that began in mid-December and has expanded significantly. Gov. Phil Murphy has set a goal of vaccinating 4.7 million eligible adults by the end of this month, and while the pace of vaccination has slackened recently, the governor has said he remains confident of reaching the goal.
Murphy said Wednesday that the state is now considering systems to digitize vaccination information in a way that can make it easier for residents to track and show their status, like a vaccine passport. Persichilli said DOH officials are reviewing “several systems” to improve consumer access to this data.
“We are considering our options,” Murphy said, suggesting an announcement could come later this month. But he remains concerned about the potential for discrimination against people with limited technology access, or other barriers. “We’re still not where we need to be on equity, and that concerns me,” he said.
While the coronavirus is now spreading at a far slower rate than in the past, more than 1 million New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March 2020, including 26,000 who have died, which includes probable and confirmed deaths, state figures show. But as more residents are immunized against the virus, the risk continues for those who haven’t had shots, and new variants of the disease are on the rise.
“The overwhelming (number of) folks who are getting sick and getting hospitalized are not vaccinated,” Murphy said Wednesday. “This is now, overwhelmingly, a pandemic among people who are unvaccinated.”
State officials continue to track breakthrough cases among those who are vaccinated and when these infections cause hospitalizations or deaths, they report the data to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Persichilli also shared information Wednesday from a study of vaccinated health care workers conducted by researchers at the Hackensack Meridian Health network’s Center for Discovery and Innovation. The team identified 138 COVID-19 cases among 26,000 immunized individuals, none of whom became seriously ill.
“The vaccine is not only driving down the number of cases, but it is also mitigating the worst effects of the virus among those few who do get infected,” the DOH said in a statement Wednesday.