A May 1 decision by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to only track breakthrough infections that lead to hospitalization or death has left the nation with a muddled understanding of COVID-19’s impact on the vaccinated.
Meggan Ingram was fully vaccinated when she tested positive for COVID-19 early this month. The 37-year-old’s fever had spiked to 103 and her breath was coming in ragged bursts when an ambulance rushed her to an emergency room in Pasco, Washington, on Aug. 10. For three hours she was given oxygen and intravenous steroids, but she was ultimately sent home without being admitted.
Seven people in her house have now tested positive. Five were fully vaccinated and two of the children are too young to get a vaccine.
As the pandemic enters a critical new phase, public health authorities continue to lack data on crucial questions, just as they did when COVID-19 first tore through the United States in the spring of 2020. Today there remains no full understanding on how the aggressively contagious delta variant spreads among the nearly 200 million partially or fully vaccinated Americans like Ingram, or on how many are getting sick.
The nation is flying blind yet again, critics say, because on May 1
of this year — as the new variant found a foothold in the U.S. — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mostly stopped tracking COVID-19 in vaccinated people, also known as breakthrough cases, unless the illness was severe enough to cause hospitalization or death.
Individual states now set their own criteria for collecting data on breakthrough cases, resulting in a muddled grasp of COVID-19’s impact, leaving experts in the dark as to the true number of infections among the vaccinated, whether or not vaccinated people can develop long-haul illness, and the risks to unvaccinated children as they return to school.
“It’s like saying we don’t count,” said Ingram after learning of the CDC’s policy change. COVID-19 roared through her household, yet it is unlikely any of those cases will show up in federal data because no one died or was admitted to a hospital.
The CDC told ProPublica in an email that it continues to study breakthrough cases, just in a different way. “This shift will help maximize the quality of the data collected on cases of greatest clinical and public health importance,” the email said.
In addition to the hospitalization and death information, the CDC is working with Emerging Infections Program
sites in 10 states to study breakthrough cases, including some mild and asymptomatic ones, the agency’s email said.
Under pressure from some health experts, the CDC announced
that it will create a new outbreak analysis and forecast center, tapping experts in the private sector and public health to guide it to better predict how diseases spread and to act quickly during an outbreak.
Tracking only some data and not releasing it sooner or more fully, critics say, leaves a gaping hole in the nation’s understanding of the disease at a time when it most needs information.
“They are missing a large portion of the infected,” said Dr. Randall Olsen, medical director of molecular diagnostics at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas. “If you’re limiting yourself to a small subpopulation with only hospitalizations and deaths, you risk a biased viewpoint.” Continue Reading…