by Jeffery Dingler
Here’s What A Breakthrough Case Is Like
After I was fully vaccinated in April, I felt like it was finally over: the pandemic, mask mandates, the looming threat of lockdowns. By mid-July, I was so confident that things were safer, I booked a flight to visit an old college friend in Seattle, my sole mini-vacay this summer.
My cousin, who drove me to the airport, warned me that she’d been sick a few days. I put on my face mask as I rode with her but at the time thought it was only a summer cold. A week later, I was back home where my brother said he couldn’t hug me because he caught whatever my cousin had.
A week after that, my mother fell ill. That was when I first heard the ominous words: breakthrough case. My mother speculated that she had a breakthrough case of delta, a highly contagious COVID-19 variant that’s surging across much of the country right now, especially here in the South.
Impossible, I thought. Every member of my immediate family had been vaccinated months before: my brother with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and my cousin, my mother and me with Pfizer.
Yes, we live in the heart of the delta variant uptick, a state where it’s been common throughout the whole pandemic to see numbers of mask-less folks at grocery stores and restaurants. Yet I didn’t think a new variant could be so strong it could infect each inoculated relative.
Then, late in the evening on July 31, I felt achy and congested.
When I awoke the next morning, I felt like I had a vise grip around my skull and my lymph nodes were slightly swollen. I was definitely ill. Even though I still doubted that I had COVID, I decided to get tested because I was planning on visiting a close friend the following day, someone who was still fighting “long-haul” symptoms from his own bout with the coronavirus.
I knew how serious this disease was. Last summer, while I was still living and working as a journalist in upstate New York, I was sick for two weeks with what I’m almost certain was coronavirus. I had chills and sweats, a high fever, congestion and a headache that lasted days, all the telltale symptoms except, interestingly, a loss of smell or taste.
While I was still symptomatic last year, I drove to a local testing site that said a nurse or volunteer would administer the test for me. However, I ended up having to swab my own nose and, knowing what I know now, I’m positive I didn’t do a good enough job.
A week later, my results came back negative, even though I was still quarantining at home, still burning with icy fever and floating through a kind of mental fog that could best be described as hallucinatory.
This time last year, COVID testing was still notoriously unreliable. News stories of multiple false negatives before a positive test were common. If what I had last June was indeed the virus that’s shuttered the globe and killed millions, then I can easily say it was the worst sickness I’ve ever had.
Though I made a full recovery last year, the virus took everything else from me. I had a good life in New York’s Capital Region working as a writer for a local magazine and, as a side hustle, teaching guitar and ukulele.
Because of the pandemic, I lost my writing gig and the music academy where I taught closed its doors for good. Four years of working and living in the Empire State were washed away after just four months of the coronavirus.
Like so many others over the course of this crazy pandemic, I moved back home. I wanted to be closer to my family, and I thought I would be safer out in the country. I was wrong.
My only options were a $20 at-home test from Walmart, a $50 test done at a local pharmacy, or a visit to a doctor’s office, which would have cost me several hundred dollars out of pocket. I went with the cheapest option, surprised to find that Walmart’s kit included two tests and results within 15 minutes.
The at-home test was easy to follow: a nasal swab plus drops of solution onto a test strip. The test received Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization for self-testing, but it doesn’t meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s requirements when returning from a trip abroad.
Furthermore, as compared to free curbside testing a few months ago, I had to walk into a store full of people, potentially spreading the virus, to purchase this test. I wore a mask, but I still felt uneasy walking through a Supercenter overflowing with people (some masked, some not).
Back at home, I swirled the uncomfortable nose swab for 15 seconds in each nostril. After waiting 15 minutes, I saw that my test was definitely positive.
At first, I couldn’t believe it. My immunizations had made me feel truly immune. I reread all the instructions in the kit about what to do if I had it. Incredibly, there was no option to report or track my results. The instructions said only that I should contact a doctor (or call my nonexistent health care provider) to report that I had tested positive.
But paying money for a doctor’s visit while contagious to report that I had COVID-19 didn’t make sense. Instead, I notified everyone I had close contact with in the past days and went into a 10-day quarantine, what the CDC recommended for breakthrough cases and unvaccinated folks alike.
As I write this now, I’m midway through my quarantine, still symptomatic and contagious. At first, I was worried that my condition would worsen, but it hasn’t been too bad so far, like a persistent summer cold.
The at-home kit recommended retesting after three days. I waited until Day 5 and tested positive again, which could be a detection of dead virus particles since, according to the CDC, COVID is rarely detectable via the test after six days.
Slowly, I’m feeling better, although the brain fog, the inability to latch onto a chain of thought long enough to get my day started or get some serious work done, has been the most worrisome.
So far, my other symptoms have included a general achiness and grogginess, head and chest congestion, headaches and, in the first few days, a lot of sneezing. And, just like when I was sick last summer, I haven’t lost my sense of smell or taste, which only reaffirms my belief that I previously had coronavirus.
Thanks to the vaccine, none of my symptoms have been severe, and they weren’t serious for any of my family members either. In fact, my brother, mother and cousin all seemed to make a full recovery within one to two weeks. But if the delta variant infected my whole family, it suggests that we still need to keep masking up in public, maintaining social distance and being cautious socially.
The federal government only keeps track of these breakthrough cases if they result in death or hospitalization. In fact, the CDC hasn’t been tracking mild breakthroughs since May. That means the number of breakthrough cases throughout the country, the true number of infected people, is likely much higher.