HONOLULU (KHON2) — Nearly one in 10 COVID positives from Friday, July 23, to Thursday, Aug. 26, have been among fully vaccinated people. Hospitalizations are also on the rise among breakthrough cases. It is an alarming statistic Always Investigating analyzed from hard-to-get Hawaii data, while many other states are posting breakthrough information regularly.
KHON2 has been pushing for more up-to-date vaccine breakthrough statistics since the delta variant took hold. We found out Thursday, Sept. 2, that nearly 1,900 of the 19,000 or so cases in the past month have been fully vaccinated people testing positive.
In the spring and early summer, the lull in coronavirus case rates was a breath of fresh air as vaccines took hold and largely suppressed transmission and severe illness. Vaccines are still the best at keeping people safe from COVID, but there has been a change in the data thanks to the delta variant.
Take Alaska, for example, where fully vaccinated people accounted for about 30% of all cases in July. Nearly 20% of Alaskans hospitalized for COVID in July were vaccinated, and four of the 17 who died there in July were breakthroughs — nearly one-quarter of deaths.
So, is the breakthrough trend better or worse here? It is hard to know because Hawaii is not on the list of states the CDC said are now publicly reporting vaccine breakthrough cases.
“We’ve known from the beginning of this response to the pandemic that Hawaii is so unique,” explained Dr. Thomas Lee, a University of Hawaii assistant professor of epidemiology and co-founder of HiPAM, a team of scientists dedicated to studying and forecasting COVID trends in Hawaii. “Our demographic makeup, the fact that we’re an island chain, all of these factors make it difficult for us to extrapolate some of the nuances that other states are experiencing and apply to Hawaii.”
What we did know up until now came through occasional disclosures from health or hospital officials. Always Investigating found out labs have been reporting vaccination status of all positives to the Department of Health (DOH) since, at least, late July.
KHON2 pressed the DOH to compile the very latest breakthrough data across the board. They told me there have been 2,419 cumulative breakthrough cases, as of Thursday, Aug. 26 — a huge jump of nearly 1,900 in just the past month, which is one in 10 positives in the July-23-to-Aug.-26 time frame.
Breakthroughs are 4% of the states’ 60,000 or so positives of all time, as of Aug. 26, and they represent just 0.27% of 886,378 vaccinated people having caught the virus.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said that ratio is growing due to the takeover of the delta variant “and also might indicate waning of vaccine efficacy over time.”
“The good news is that the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in preventing severe infection, including hospitalization and death, remains robust, over 90% across multiple studies done around the U.S. and internationally,” Kemble said. “Vaccine continues to provide protection in the ways that matter most.”
On one day last week, 13% of hospitalizations were breakthrough infections. But the state said 68 out of the 2,400 breakthroughs have ever been hospitalized, representing just 3% of breakthrough infections.
The state said eight of Hawaii’s hundreds of COVID deaths were fully vaccinated – 0.0009% of vaccinated people dying from COVID.
Lawmakers are urging the DOH to release breakthrough data regularly.
“Hawaii residents should have as much information as they can to make decisions about their health, which includes details about vaccine breakthrough cases, especially as we are experiencing a rise in infections,” U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono told Always Investigating. “While new COVID variants have proven to be more deadly and infectious, vaccines continue to provide high levels of protection. We all need to be informed and do our part to keep each other safe and limit the spread of the virus.”
A DOH spokesperson told KHON2: “Our overwhelmed data team is working on breakthrough data that may be posted on the extensive DOCD data page.”
“We need a real time data to be able to not just react, but to plan forward and potentially change our strategies and approaches from a policy level,” Lee said, “but also from a healthcare perspective and planning perspective as well.”
Readily accessible data is important when deciding whether policies, such as the vaccinate-or-test workplace and travel rules, might need to switch to vaccination-and-test in order to tamp down the surge; or for determining whether the mounting number of positives due to extensive work-mandated tests pose a threat; or if we should start focusing more on just the severe case counts rather than the many mild or asymptomatic cases among the mounting case totals.
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“What we’re really concerned about is are you transmitting? And oftentimes, if you’re fully vaccinated, you’re not going to be transmitting even if you test positive,” Lee said. “We don’t track the case counts for the flu, however we do track hospitalizations and fatalities from the flu. Over time, I suspect as more people get vaccinated and can mount an immune response, I absolutely think we’re going to get away from reporting daily case counts.”