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Late last week, in the middle of the night, state Rep. Celia Israel woke up in her Washington, D.C., hotel room with a fever. It didn’t occur to the Austin Democrat that she could have COVID-19, but she took a test later that morning to be sure, and then another. Both came back positive.
Days before, Israel had joined dozens of her Democratic colleagues in traveling to the nation’s capital to block a GOP-backed elections bill. She’d become fully vaccinated in January, so she was surprised and a little scared by her test results.
Next, Israel had to quarantine, and she told the Observer on Tuesday that she’s experiencing mild cold-like symptoms. She urges vaccine holdouts to “come and join the herd.”
“We need more people to get the vaccine and get over your fears,” Israel said by phone. “I had very little negative effects — just a sore arm — and that’s a hell of a lot better than being 6-feet under.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, five other fully vaccinated Democratic state lawmakers had tested positive for the virus. The news comes as public health experts are warning of a surge in new cases stemming from the highly infectious Delta variant.
And while COVID-19 vaccines are still effective in preventing serious illness and death, experts are recommending that even inoculated Texans remain vigilant.
Experts are seeing more “breakthrough” infections among fully vaccinated Texans, but that doesn’t mean the vaccine is ineffective, said Dr. Erin Carlson, an associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington. Even though the chances of severe symptoms are much slimmer, some are again sporting masks in crowds — Carlson included.
“We don’t get a tattoo on our head when we get vaccinated, so I have no idea who’s vaccinated and who’s not,” she said. “If I’m going to run the risk of being around multiple unvaccinated people, I’m going to wear a mask.”
As vaccination rates have stagnated, epidemiologists nationwide have been warning of a tangential crisis: The pandemic of the unvaccinated. Texas recently surpassed the 50% vaccination mark, which still falls well below the rate needed to hit herd immunity.
On Tuesday, Dallas County reported an average of 252 new coronavirus cases per day, according to The New York Times — a 131% increase from two weeks ago. Soon, public health experts could recommend going back to more conservative coronavirus guidelines, Carlson said.
Around 12% of positive cases in Dallas County are breakthroughs, said County Judge Clay Jenkins.
Some people refrain from inoculation because they already caught COVID-19, but Jenkins said the immunity provided by overcoming an infection appears to fade with time. Plus, some studies indicate that infection from a previous variant does little to protect against the burgeoning Delta variant.
People should avoid getting COVID-19 in the first place because experts are still learning about the long-term effects, Jenkins said. Other viruses can cause complications later in life: Chickenpox can lead to shingles, for instance, and HPV can spawn certain cancers.
The safest bet is for vaccinated people to continue practicing preventative measures, such as maintaining a distance in crowds or refraining from dining inside restaurants. It’s sort of like using only one form of birth control, Jenkins added: Even the pill is typically just 91% effective at preventing pregnancy.
“If people really don’t want to have another baby right on top of the one they just had, then they may want to use two forms of birth control,” he said. “And so we can be fully vaccinated and we can do the sort of things that up our chances of not getting sick.”
Still, there’s a “fine line between panic and precaution,” said Dr. Rodney E. Rohde, a professor and chair of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program at Texas State University. People should strike a healthy balance, remaining aware of their surroundings but not paralyzed by fear.
The “golden rule of health care” is to prevent hurting other people, said Rohde, who’s also an associate adjunct professor at Austin Community College. Viruses are difficult to beat: They exist to reproduce, to infect and to mutate when humans try to adapt.
“Viruses are going to virus, no matter what you do,” he said. “Viruses are probably the most diabolical microbe on the planet.”
Regardless of whether one gets the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, it’s important to sign up in the first place, Carlson said. Plus, there’s not yet evidence to indicate vaccinated people can transmit the disease; rather, “the spreaders are the unvaccinated.”
Breakthrough cases may serve as an incentive for the fully vaccinated to revert to previous safety guidelines, she added. But if a vaccinated person gets sick, it’s still a “heck of a lot better than being on a ventilator in the ICU.”
Moving into the fall, Rohde predicts there will be another rise in cases. He doesn’t want to “jump on any alarmist bandwagon yet,” but he said if more vaccinated folks fall seriously ill, that could mean guidelines change to promote booster shots.
Overall, though, Americans are lucky to live in the U.S., which has a surplus of vaccines, Rohde said. While they may cause some side effects for a small percentage of people, they work unbelievably well overall.
“There will never be no risk,” he said, “but it’s better than getting COVID.”
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