COVID-19 infections, deaths growing in vaccinated people

New Jersey sees spike in breakthrough cases in last two weeks, data analysis shows

Gov. Phil Murphy said again Monday that vaccines against COVID-19 are 99.9% effective against getting the virus and 99.99% effective against dying from it. But the most recent data available shows a significant uptick in breakthrough cases and deaths since the delta variant became the dominant strain in New Jersey.

An NJ Spotlight News analysis of data from the state Department of Health for the most recent two-week period — June 29 through July 12 — found that the number of COVID-19 cases among fully vaccinated people increased by more than 16%. The number of hospitalizations jumped by two-thirds and the number of deaths rose by 55%, that analysis found.

Over the past two weeks, breakthrough infections and deaths accounted for a much larger portion of new cases and deaths than they did in the 23 weeks after the first New Jersey residents were fully protected by vaccination on Jan. 19. Breakthrough cases and deaths made up less than 1% of all new infections and deaths between Jan. 19 and June 28. But cases in vaccinated people accounted for about 17% of more than 3,300 new cases and 24% of 71 deaths occurring between June 29 and July 12, the analysis found.

The spike in infections among those fully vaccinated bears out fears of health experts that the much more highly transmissible delta variant would lead to increased cases, hospitalizations and deaths. About three-quarters of the viruses sequenced in New Jersey over the last four weeks were the delta variant, according to the health department’s COVID-19 dashboard. New Jersey lifted its mask mandate on May 28, but Murphy and state Commissioner of Heath Judith Persichilli on Wednesday urged all residents, including those fully vaccinated, to mask up again in certain circumstances. That followed similar guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday.

Masking up (again)

Murphy and Persichilli said in a statement that they were recommending people wear masks again because it is clear the delta variant is more transmissible, including among the vaccinated.

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“We have crushed this virus repeatedly like no other state in the nation, and we are proud to boast among the country’s highest vaccination rate,” they said in the statement. “But at this point, given where our metrics are now, we feel the best course of action is to strongly encourage every New Jerseyan, and every visitor to our state, to take personal responsibility and mask up indoors when prudent.”

Those situations include indoors in crowded settings, where there is close contact with people who might not be fully vaccinated and when the vaccine status of others is unknown. They also recommend those who are immunocompromised or at increased risk for severe disease wear masks.

During his media briefing Monday on the pandemic, Murphy said that those who are vaccinated and get a breakthrough case of COVID-19 are less likely to be hospitalized or die. Of the 49 fully vaccinated who did succumb to the illness, “many had other complicating factors, which kept them vulnerable to a COVID infection,” Murphy said.

Lewis Nelson, chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said wearing masks is necessary to help bring down the number of cases given so many remain unvaccinated and, at the moment, unwilling to get that protection.

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“When the CDC initially recommended that vaccinated people stop wearing masks indoors, they were clear that those who are unvaccinated or who have not developed natural immunity from previous infection with the virus should continue to wear masks,” Nelson said. “Although the current spike in COVID-19 cases is primarily in unvaccinated people, we cannot differentiate those who are vaccinated from those who are not. Therefore, all people, immune or not, should wear masks when they are in areas with high viral transmission. The slight increase in COVID infections among vaccinated populations, while generally fairly mild, further supports this recommendation.”

More stringent measures?

Murphy and Persichilli said they reserve the right to take further measures, including another mask mandate, if the number of cases continues to rise and urged all those who have yet to be vaccinated to do so.

“The vaccines turn COVID into a preventable disease,” Murphy said Monday. “Because of the vaccines, this is a pandemic, as we’ve been saying now for many weeks, among the unvaccinated.”

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