The Risk of Vaccinated COVID Transmission Is Not Low

My two-year-old tested positive for COVID last month. My mind-numbing and costly project to keep him uninfected prior to his vaccinations had proven an abject failure. I was angry—and surprised. During the time he was likely infected, he had only been around vaccinated people when indoors.

Although we know the absolute risk of serious illness in young children is low, there are many other causes for concern as a result of unvaccinated infection: multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C, long COVID, silent organ or brain damage, psychiatric or chronic disease later in life, and damage to smell. While I’ll never know exactly who infected my son, his infection drove me to discover something that only came into focus in late October: the risk of vaccinated transmission is not low.

Once infected, vaccinated people seem to transmit COVID similarly to unvaccinated people; there’s no reason to suspect the same isn’t true for children, the youngest of whom are still not eligible for COVID shots. And yet many vaccinated people are walking around this holiday season thinking their immunizations are force fields that not only protect them, but also shield vulnerable loved ones. They are not.

It is vital that people responsible for the health of unvaccinated children, as well as people at high risk of infection, understand this: COVID vaccines make it less likely you’ll get sick and especially unlikely you’ll get very sick. But vaccinated people—whether they have symptoms or not—are contracting and spreading the virus in nontrivial numbers.

If I could do things over again, I would not have allowed my son to be around even vaccinated people indoors without masks.

In a November press conference, Tedros Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, said that the vaccines were 60 percent protective against spreading the virus prior to the arrival of the delta variant. That number has dropped to 40 percent post-Delta. Omicron may worsen the problem, if, as suspected, it is more transmissible and leads to many more breakthrough infections.

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