You can still get Covid-19 after being fully vaccinated – but the good news is that you’re much less likely to catch the virus, spread it to others or get seriously ill from it.
A breakthrough infection occurs when a fully vaccinated person gets infected with Covid-19 at least 14 days after they’re fully vaccinated. Even though the current vaccines have demonstrated a high level of protection against the virus, a small number of breakthrough cases are expected, because the vaccines are not 100% effective. In fact, no vaccine provides that level of protection for any disease.
‘Getting a breakthrough infection is rare, but it does happen – especially after having only one dose of the vaccine,’ says Dr Annette Alaeus, Head of Infectious Diseases at Livi. ‘As well as providing over 90% protection against hospitalisation, the vaccines are very good at reducing the severity of the illness.’
What’s the risk of getting Covid-19 after my vaccination?
Breakthrough infections are uncommon, but a small number of people who are fully vaccinated will still develop Covid-19. The best protection against the highly transmissible Delta variant, which is now the dominant strain in Europe, is having 2 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.
One new study suggests that the Pfizer vaccine is 92% effective at preventing a high viral load – a high concentration of virus in test samples – 14 days after the second dose. The Astrazeneca vaccine was 69% effective against a high viral load 14 days after the second dose.
‘Some people aren’t as well protected by vaccination as others,’ explains Dr Alaeus. ‘Older age groups are more susceptible to breakthrough infections, as are people with weaker immune systems and those taking immunosuppressant medications.’
Public health bodies across Europe are now deciding whether people who are more vulnerable to breakthrough infections will need a booster shot in autumn to avoid a winter surge of infections.
What happens if I get Covid-19 after being vaccinated?
‘If you’re infected with Covid-19 after being vaccinated, you’re likely to have mild symptoms because your immune system has already been primed by the vaccine to recognise the virus and create antibodies,’ says Dr Alaeus. ‘You may have no symptoms at all, or suffer fewer over a shorter period. You may have a slight cold or feel tired.’ Other symptoms that have been reported with breakthrough infections include:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Loss of smell
‘The severity of the disease among those with a breakthrough infection is less compared to people who aren’t vaccinated,’ says Dr Alaeus. ‘Around 90% of Covid-19 patients in intensive care in Sweden haven’t been fully vaccinated.’
And a new study confirms this, too, with unvaccinated people 29 times more likely to be hospitalised with Covid-19 than vaccinated people.
How long do I have to wait until the vaccine is fully effective?
It takes 14 days after getting the second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine for it to reach maximum protection. Because of this, it’s still possible to become ill and infect others before this time.
If I get Covid-19 after my first vaccination, when should I have my second dose?
‘I’d recommend waiting at least 1 month after a breakthrough infection to get your second dose, so you can be sure you’re fully recovered,’ says Dr Alaeus.
Can I still spread Covid-19 after I’m vaccinated?
While early data suggests that vaccines are also very effective at preventing transmission, it’s still possible to spread Covid-19 – even if you don’t have any symptoms.
‘With the Delta variant, we’re seeing more breakthrough infections because it is a lot more transmissible,’ says Dr Alaeus. ‘You’re more likely to pass the virus on and be more contagious for longer because each person is carrying a higher viral load.’
How long will my vaccine last?
Evidence is growing that antibody levels decline within a few weeks following vaccination – and it’s expected that levels fall over time without ongoing exposure to the virus.
But current research also shows that protection against severe disease and death appears to be maintained because other immune cells are maintained over longer periods.
‘We don’t yet know the full extent of how long the protection from the coronavirus vaccines will last – although the initial clinical trials suggest that people with 2 doses may have enough immune cells to prevent severe disease a year later,’ says Dr Alaeus.
Can I get long Covid after I’ve been fully vaccinated?
It’s still unclear whether you can get long Covid after being vaccinated, which is when people experience persistent, returning or new signs and symptoms that last for longer than 4 weeks after getting Covid-19.
‘There’s currently little data and larger studies are still underway,’ says Dr Alaeus.
What steps can I take to stay safe from other more contagious variants?
Vaccines remain the safest and most effective way to reduce your risk of Covid-19. As well as getting the vaccine, we should all continue to protect ourselves and others by following national restrictions, wearing a mask in indoor public places, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, washing our hands regularly and practising social distancing.
‘As well as these measures, it’s still important to continue with rapid testing even if you’re fully vaccinated because it can stop you from unintentionally spreading the virus,’ says Dr Alaeus.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr Annette Alaeus, Head of Infectious Diseases at Livi.