Robert Flinn knew there was a chance he could contract COVID despite being fully vaccinated, but now that he's become a breakthrough COVID case, he said he wishes he knew more.
"I do think there was a disconnect between what I was hearing from public health authorities and the reality of the situation," he said. "When I heard a statistic or health experts say things like, 'Virtually every new infection is someone who is unvaccinated,' I took that to mean that I could pretty much go back to living my life according to normal. Had I known that there were this many breakthrough cases of people contracting the virus, but maybe not ending up in the hospital, I would have continued to take more precautions."
Flinn is one of multiple breakthrough cases in the Chicago area, but public health experts don't provide data on cases like his because he didn't end up hospitalized or worse.
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, the state does not publicize the number of residents who tested positive after being fully vaccinated but did not die or require hospitalization in order to "help maximize the quality of the data collected on cases of greatest clinical and public health importance."
But Flinn, who received a dose of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the end of March, believes data on such cases could have helped prevent him from contracting coronavirus.
"Had I known the prevalence of breakthrough cases, I would have continued to be more careful about wearing my mask," he said, adding that he followed public health guidance while being fully vaccinated.
"I've had a breakthrough case and I'm hearing about more breakthrough cases," he said. "I'm definitely telling people that I know, 'If you're indoors at all, even if you're vaccinated, you should continue wearing a mask for sure.'"
Illinois and federal health officials have so far not adjusted masking guidance across the country or state, still saying fully vaccinated people can remove their masks in most situations. But Gov. J.B. Pritzker has been seen at multiple public events wearing his mask out of what he said was an "abundance of caution" as delta variant cases continue to spread. Meanwhile, a number of California counties, including Los Angeles, will soon require all residents to wear masks in indoor settings regardless of vaccination status.
Illinois' top doctor said Tuesday that breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in fully vaccinated residents are a "unicorn" as she again urged those who have not yet gotten vaccinated to do so.
"These vaccines are truly effective," IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. "You know, everyone has heard of a case or two of someone who had a breakthrough infection or breakthrough hospitalization, but it is, that is so far the unicorn, that you need to focus on the people who are not vaccinated, they're the ones filling up the hospital as COVID patients."
For Flinn, while he acknowledged he didn't need to go to the hospital, he still believes vaccinated people shouldn't let their guards down.
"Being vaccinated myself, I thought that I could let my guard down. So I did things like went to Chicago Cubs games on Monday and Wednesday [last week], had a birthday happy hour outdoors with a group of friends."
But then, while out to dinner with a friend last Friday, he started experiencing symptoms.
"I started feeling congested, similar to what I would feel like if I had seasonal allergies," he said. "But then after I got home I felt a little feverish. I went to sleep. The next morning I woke up with a 100.5 degree fever. So I went to the local CVS down the street from me, I received a rapid test, and about four hours later they told me I was positive for COVID."
In the days that followed, Flinn said his fever worsened, he suffered from an "excruciating headache," he lost his sense of taste and he felt unusually fatigued for several days.
"I'd say the worst headache I've ever had in my life. I thought I could have been having an aneurysm it was so bad," he said.
While Flinn said the symptoms were "more intense than I expected them to be," he's grateful for his vaccine.
"The vaccine still worked for me because it kept me out of the hospital - and that's the most important thing - and it kept me alive," he said. "I'm confident that I won't end up there. Hopefully I don't."
Flinn isn't alone.
Another fully vaccinated Chicagoan who contracted COVID alongside several vaccinated friends on a trip to Provincetown, Massachusetts, said he was surprised to hear the number of vaccinated people reporting breakthrough cases, but noted that many suffered from milder symptoms, including himself.
"It was everywhere," Robert Coy told NBC Chicago. "It was really shocking that with the number of people who also, you know, said, 'We've gone through vaccination, we've been vaccinated for months,' that a lot of people tested positive."
Since Coy's trip, Provincetown's town manager, Alex Morse, said the area has seen a spike in COVID cases, which were "overwhelmingly" affecting fully vaccinated people.
"The positive cases were identified in individuals presenting with mild respiratory symptoms and were tested for COVID-19," Town Manager Alex Morse wrote on Facebook Sunday. "Overwhelmingly, the affected individuals have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. The moderate intensity of symptoms indicates that the vaccines are working as predicted."
In Illinois, a total of 151 people have died and more than 500 have been hospitalized in Illinois due to COVID-19 in "breakthrough" cases after they were fully vaccinated, according to state health officials. That number of fatalities equates to 2.2% of COVID-19 deaths in the state since Jan. 1, officials said.
A person is considered “fully vaccinated” two weeks after receiving the second dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna COVID vaccine, or two weeks after receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Health officials continue to report that surges in cases in the state are largely in unvaccinated populations, highlighting the need for increased vaccinations.
"There is a very clear connection between where those case rates are growing the fastest and how well that area is vaccinated, i.e. the more highly vaccinated areas are having lower case rates," Ezike said in an interview with NBC Chicago.
She noted that the growing delta variant has a higher transmissibility that impacts more people at a time than previous variants. Within weeks, Ezike said Illinois has seen COVID cases double statewide.
Areas of western and southern Illinois are seeing increases in positivity rates and coronavirus-related hospitalizations in recent weeks, continuing a recent trend that’s seeing COVID metrics slowly on the rise in many areas, particularly those bordering Missouri.
As the delta variant continues to spread, experts are continuing to push for more Americans to get the COVID vaccine.
Studies have shown that the delta variant spreads approximately 225% faster than the original strain of the virus. Studies have also shown that once a person catches the delta variant, they likely become infectious sooner, and that the virus grows more rapidly inside a person’s respiratory tract.
All three of the vaccines currently authorized for emergency use by the FDA, have shown to be largely effective against preventing serious illness and death due to COVID, and all three companies say that their vaccines are showing promise in preventing those outcomes with the delta variant as well.