Neil Perry was caught off guard when he found out he was COVID-19 positive. The vaccinated mayor of Methuen said he’d had few symptoms — just a cough — when he learned a friend with whom he’d been in contact tested positive. Perry did his due diligence and learned he was, too.
“I am thankful that I got the vaccine when I did,” he said in a statement this past week. “Let this be a reminder that this pandemic is not over. If you are not vaccinated, I implore you to do so.”
Dominic Copeland, city councilor in Beverly, had a far more serious infection. He credits his Johnson & Johnson shot in March with saving his life.
The ordeal he described to Salem News reporter Paul Leighton began when his partially vaccinated son, Gabe, 17, tested positive for COVID-19. The teen was hit hard but recovered within days. Everyone else in their house was fully vaccinated.
Then, a little more than two weeks ago, Copeland felt telltale symptoms — difficulty breathing, fever, fatigue. Within a week he’d been admitted to Beverly Hospital, where low oxygen levels pushed him to the threshold of being hooked to a ventilator.
Copeland returned home after six days in the hospital, just in time for his 45th birthday.
“If I didn’t take the vaccine, I probably wouldn’t be alive right now,” he told Leighton last week. “Instead of celebrating my birthday, my family would be planning my funeral.”
Perry and Copeland are two in a growing number of highly visible “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19, in which people who’ve been vaccinated, months ago in some instances, get sick. Their stories are urgent reminders to people who haven’t bothered getting a vaccine to do so.
Their stories also illustrate the vulnerability of everyone else who did their duty to their own health and the collective good, yet still may get sick. It is especially distressing a few days before school is set to return to session. In-person learning will resume in elementary and middle schools — including for students under age 12 not yet eligible to get a shot. Those kids will wear masks — certainly in Massachusetts and depending upon where they go to school in New Hampshire — but they won’t be vaccinated.
To be sure, the vast number of people who've been affected by a spike in COVID-19 cases driven by the delta variant are unvaccinated. Areas of the U.S. where emergency rooms and intensive care units are overloaded are, by and large, places where fewer people have gotten the vaccine.
The shot is not a perfect shield, however. An outbreak in Provincetown earlier this summer proved as much. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later determined that three-quarters of those infected as a result of a super-spreader celebration around the July Fourth were vaccinated. That goes to show that even high vaccination rates -- and Massachusetts' continues to be among the highest in the country -- aren't enough to shut down the spread of COVID-19.
As of a week ago Friday, Aug. 21, Massachusetts had tallied 15,739 occurrences of COVID-19 among people who were fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Public Health. Of those, 571 had been hospitalized, and 131 had died. Health officials believe the actual number of cases is far higher but unreported due to people with relatively mild symptoms.
If the vaccine is not a guarantee that COVID-19 will pass you buy, then it does increase the odds that you’ll escape the worst of the virus. As Copeland told Leighton, “It doesn’t necessarily stop you from getting the virus. It just stops you from dying.”
That’s still a far better outcome than the alternative.
And, again, it is a striking reason to get vaccinated if you haven't already done so.