SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is nearing the 1 million mark of residents who have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine.
Of that number, over 540,000 Utahns have been fully vaccinated, according to Utah Department of Health data Friday. But as that number increases, Utah isn't alone in documented "breakthrough" COVID-19 cases. These are new cases of COVID-19 even after becoming fully vaccinated.
Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health, confirmed Thursday that there have been 97 confirmed breakthrough cases among the 521,000 fully vaccinated Utahns at that time, which represents less than 0.02% of the number of fully vaccinated Utahns through Thursday's figures.
"This is truly amazing and speaks to the great effectiveness of the vaccines we have," she said of the low percentage of breakthrough cases.
Many other states across the U.S. reported low numbers of breakthrough cases, as well. The Washington State Department of Health acknowledged on Tuesday that it had 102 documented breakthrough cases; the Star Tribune reported last week there were 89 cases in Minnesota.
There are a few reasons for breakthrough cases. First, medical experts are quick to say no vaccine is 100% effective; health department officials did not specify which vaccine was given in any of the breakthrough cases, but it is possible with any vaccine.
Secondly, public health officials have cautioned that variants of the coronavirus could possibly make the vaccines less effective.
So far, only two of the breakthrough cases have been sequenced and both were variants that originated in California, known as B.427/429. That's one of the variants the state health department hasn't yet provided information about in its data, and one less researched than more-known variants that originated in Brazil, South Africa or the United Kingdom.
"There is some concern with the variants emerging that there will be decreased effectiveness among the vaccines but they're still very effective vaccines, which is fantastic," she said. "We're not concerned that the (variants) will decrease effectiveness so much that'd have to change our public health strategy … science shows us the vaccines are still effective against the variants."
State health officials were still optimistic that the vaccine was doing its job even after breakthrough cases emerged.
Dunn said there was a recent cluster of over 15 breakthrough cases in a long-term care facility in Utah, but none of the individuals who tested positive had any symptoms. It was an indication that the vaccine was preventing severe disease even if fully vaccinated people contracted COVID-19.
"This is a population that, prior to the vaccination, would have a really high mortality rate," she said. "This time, because of the vaccine, none of them even had symptoms."
There still have been five hospitalizations among the 97 documented cases in Utah. Dunn said all five were "older adults with underlying health conditions," which made it unclear if their hospitalizations were tied to COVID-19 or because of their other health conditions.
The state plans to continue to track and sequence breakthrough cases in the future, which could allow public health experts more insight into how variants factor in the vaccination process. Dunn also encouraged Utahns to receive the vaccine as soon as they possibly can, which can help reduce the risk of variants spreading.
Said Dunn: "This will keep us moving in the right direction and end this pandemic."