As Mecklenburg County residents are once again urged to wear masks indoors — regardless of their vaccination status — health officials on Friday disclosed for the first time how many people contracted the coronavirus after getting their COVID shots.
Between mid-March and mid-July, Mecklenburg officials reported more than 18,000 coronavirus cases.
Only a fraction of those cases were identified as breakthrough infections, meaning they occurred in people already immunized against COVID-19, Mecklenburg officials said.
In Mecklenburg, at least 367 residents tested positive for the virus between March 22 and July 27 so far, despite being fully protected. That equates to less than 1% of immunized residents, Mecklenburg officials said.
Meanwhile, about 98% of local cases since late March likely occurred among unvaccinated people, an Observer analysis of county health data finds.
But the true count of breakthrough cases is likely higher in the Charlotte area. Due to data reporting problems between the state and county, Mecklenburg officials acknowledged the 367 figure “does not represent all breakthrough cases.”
Studying breakthrough cases
The new data came hours before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a highly anticipated study on breakthrough infections in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, where 346 fully vaccinated people had contracted COVID-19.
The study, which found vaccinated and unvaccinated people had roughly the same viral load, motivated the CDC to issue new mask wearing guidance in areas with substantial or high coronavirus spread. That includes the Charlotte area and most of North Carolina.
To be considered a breakthrough case, a person must have completed all vaccine doses within at least the last 14 days, according to the CDC. As of July 26, the CDC says 6,587 breakthrough cases across the United States led to hospitalization or death.
This is the first estimate Mecklenburg County Public Health has been able to provide so far, due to difficulty accessing the information from a state COVID-19 database.
Mecklenburg officials did not respond to Observer questions about the severity of local breakthrough infections, including whether any caused serious complications or hospitalization.
But breakthrough infections tend to result in asymptomatic or mild cases, health experts say.
As a temporary solution before more state data is available, Mecklenburg has tracked self-reported breakthrough cases through contact tracing interviews, Deputy Public Health Director Raynard Washington told reporters this week.
Across North Carolina, about 6% of more than 58,000 COVID-19 cases reported since May have been breakthrough cases, Gov. Roy Cooper said last week.
“…Vaccines are working, because almost across the board, the people who become infected who are vaccinated are less seriously ill,” Cooper said.
NC stops short of introducing new mask mandate. Here’s what that means for Charlotte
Vaccines curb risks
Breakthrough cases resulting in severe complications or deaths are “exceedingly rare,” Atrium Health infectious disease expert Dr. Katie Passaretti told reporters this week.
In fact, about 99% of recent COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations in North Carolina and across the country are among unvaccinated people, she said.
New research shows that the two-shot Pfizer and Modern vaccines were “somewhat more effective” than the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine for preventing breakthrough infections, Washington said.
But health officials say all three vaccines are highly effective at curbing the risk of severe illness and death.
During a Thursday news conference, Cooper pleaded with North Carolinians to get their COVID-19 shots.
“After months of low numbers, our trends are turning sharply in the wrong direction,” Cooper said. “I want to be clear about why: Unvaccinated people are driving this resurgence and getting themselves and other people sick.”
Mecklenburg County COVID trends:
All coronavirus metrics are worsening in Mecklenburg, as the highly transmissible delta variant spreads and vaccination rates stall.
Federal, state and local health leaders recommend that people — regardless of vaccination status — resume wearing masks indoors in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates. And the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board on Friday morning voted to require face masks indoors at schools this fall.
Here are the latest coronavirus numbers in Mecklenburg.
▪ The rate of positive COVID-19 tests, a crucial measure of community spread of the virus, reached 11% in the past week, county health officials said. It’s still below numbers observed during the winter coronavirus surge, including the 16% positivity rate notched on Jan. 5. The positivity rate was 3.2% at the start of July.
▪ The average number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 was 127 in the past week, Mecklenburg officials said. That’s a roughly 160% increase over the last two weeks. During the winter surge, hospitalizations climbed as high as 540 on Jan. 17.
▪ On average, Mecklenburg is logging 310 new coronavirus infections each day, according to an Observer analysis of state public health data. The new daily caseload is more than seven times larger than the start of the month.
▪ The local coronavirus death toll is 998.
▪ State health data show that 52% of Mecklenburg residents are at least partially vaccinated and 48% are fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, 50% of all North Carolinians are at least partially vaccinated and 47% are fully vaccinated.