One in five breakthrough cases among Israeli health workers resulted in long-term COVID

Some fully vaccinated people who become infected with coronavirus develop long-term COVID-19 symptoms, a new study finds.

Israeli researchers looked at immunized health professionals, 19 percent of those infected despite their vaccinated status had symptoms for at least six weeks.

This was a small study, with only 39 breakthrough infections – seven of which led to long-term Covid.

Experts say future research in this area should follow patients for longer than six weeks.

Still, the findings are troubling as the Indian ‘Delta’ variant is spreading in the US and worldwide. This study was conducted before Delta reached Israel – and breakthrough infections in the country are now much more common.

Vaccinated people can get Covid for a long time from a breakthrough infection, a new study from Israel finds. Pictured: A woman receives a booster injection of the Pfizer vaccine at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, Israel

The Covid vaccines currently in use in the US are very effective in protecting people from the coronavirus – especially from serious illness, hospitalization and death.

This effectiveness has been demonstrated by numerous studies, as well as the low number of Americans who have been hospitalized or died from Covid after full vaccination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have determined: only 5,914 such cases as of July 19 – of the more than 160 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated.

But much less data is available on how well the vaccines protect against the so-called ‘long Covid’.

With prolonged Covid, patients suffer from prolonged symptoms such as brain fog, fatigue and loss of smell. Some patients have been affected for more than a year.

As more breakthrough infections are documented with the Delta variant rampant around the world, longtime Covid patients and proponents have become concerned that such infections could lead to more people developing this condition.

A new study from Israel suggests that long-term Covid is indeed possible when a patient is infected after vaccination.

The study was published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, tracked breakthrough infections among vaccinated health workers.

This institution is the largest medical center in Israel. It employs more than 12,000 health professionals, 91 percent of whom have received the Pfizer vaccine.

Between January and April 2021, Israeli researchers evaluated health professionals with symptom questionnaires, contact tracing and other measures to identify breakthrough cases.

Of the approximately 1,500 vaccinated health professionals who participated in the study, 39 had breakthrough infections.

That’s a rate of just 2.6 percent — much lower than the number of cases in Israel at the time.

Most of these 39 health professionals with breakthrough cases had mild symptoms, consistent with other findings about the protective properties of the vaccines.

Most patients infected with Covid after vaccination have mild cases, but some may have symptoms consistent with long-term Covid.  Pictured: Hospital staff at a medical center in Tel Aviv, Israel

Most patients infected with Covid after vaccination have mild cases, but some may have symptoms consistent with long-term Covid. Pictured: Hospital staff at a medical center in Tel Aviv, Israel

But a small number had more persistent symptoms.

About 31 percent of the patients still had complaints after two weeks – and 19 percent still had complaints after six weeks.

That 19 percent represents just seven patients from the original group of 1,500. But was enough for the researchers to conclude that long-lasting Covid symptoms are possible after vaccination.

Among those patients with long-term Covid, the most common symptoms were long-term loss of smell, cough, fatigue and weakness.

One employee had still not started work at the end of the six-week study period.

“It’s really troubling,” said Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the infection, prevention and control division at Sheba Medical Center and author of the study. NPR.

“If this is what we’re going to see with all the even mildly symptomatic infections we’re seeing now, that’s certainly worrisome,” she said.

Patients who got sick with Covid after vaccination had slightly lower antibody levels on average compared to those who were vaccinated and didn't get sick

Patients who got sick with Covid after vaccination had slightly lower antibody levels on average compared to those who were vaccinated and didn’t get sick

The researchers also compared antibody levels and other immune system measurements of the breakthrough patients with measurements of vaccinated health care workers who did not become infected.

These measurements suggested that the breakthrough patients had slightly lower antibody levels than vaccinated patients who did not become infected — indicating that their immune systems were less prepared to fight off the virus.

Low neutralizing antibody levels could be a sign of a possible breakthrough infection, the researchers said.

The study included a small number of long-term Covid patients and followed them for only six weeks – a short period when the condition can persist for a year or more.

Experts are calling for more research on this topic that could support the Israeli study’s findings.

“We need more research to see if this happens with the same frequency as #LongCOVID in unvaccinated people, but it does confirm that Lung COVID from breakthrough infections is possible,” said Hannah Davis, a long-term COVID patient and researcher at the Patient-Led Research Collaborative, in a Twitter post sharing the study.

Even a small number of long-term Covid cases among vaccinated patients is a cause for concern.

The Israeli study was conducted at a time when Alpha (or its British variant, B.1.1.7) was dominant in Israel — and the researchers found it was present in 85 percent of breakthrough cases.

Delta is more infections than Alpha and may be causing more breakthrough cases – compounding long Covid concerns.

“We need a lot more data, but this is a very important first look at understanding the burden of breakthroughs,” said Dr Katelyn Jetelina, author of Your Local Epidemiologist’s newsletter, in a message commenting on the research.

“We know Delta is less forgiving than Alpha. If you’re not convinced yet, it’s time to mask.’

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