COVID vaccines, delta breakthrough cases: What it means

From the White House to Wisconsin, there is a national push for COVID-19 vaccinations as the delta variant drives metrics in the wrong direction.

It comes as health experts report breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated people, leading to the need for additional vaccine shots.

Providers like Hayat Pharmacy in Milwaukee are already offering booster shots to people with compromised immune systems. That eligibility will open to the general public in September.

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Doctors say the announcement does not mean the vaccines are ineffective; instead, it is a direct response to the delta variant.

"The delta variant has decided to kind of rewrite the story on COVID," said Dr. William Hartman with UW Health.

Dr. William Hartman, UW Health

Carrying a viral load that is 1,000 times more than the original COVID-19 strain, Hartman said the delta variant is providing a challenge to the mRNA vaccines – Pfizer and Modera. Breakthrough cases suggest their provided immunity decreases over time.

"The booster will allow them to get that antibody up even higher so that they can feel more confident that they can fight off COVID-19 infection if it was to come their way," Hartman said.

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Milwaukee County data suggests COVID-19 cases are plateauing this week, but it is too early to tell. Hospitalizations and deaths have been rising in previous weeks. Health experts say the solution is still vaccinations and, now, boosters.

Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County's chief health policy advisor, said the focus is on people with compromised immune systems before providing an additional shot to the general public.

"While that additional dose is to further improve the immune response in those that didn't initially have a robust response, the booster response...is for those whose immune response to the virus has weakened over time," said Weston.

Hartman said it is important to note the vaccines are still effective despite breakthrough cases. He points to the fact that most hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

"We have a body of evidence on these that the immunity is still very good at preventing severe disease, immunization and death," said Hartman.

As for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it is too early to know if people will need booster shots, since the vaccine was not authorized for emergency use until the end of February.

Anyone concerned about immunity is encouraged to contact their primary care doctor.

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