COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – It’s a rare occurrence, but it is possible for fully vaccinated people to contract COVID-19. Just last week, three U.S. senators and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tested positive for the virus despite full vaccination.
Yet, if you wanted to know how many of these breakthrough cases have happened in Ohio, that data is not available. The Ohio Department of Health’s dashboard for breakthrough COVID-19 does not show the total number of cases, just those that lead to hospitalization and death.
It shows 407 fully vaccinated Ohioans have been hospitalized with COVID-19 this year, and 71 have died as of last Wednesday. Those numbers, however, are miniscule compared to the 19,749 (2%) COVID-19 hospitalizations and 6,965 (1%) deaths in the same timeframe. Also consider that 5.5 million people in Ohio have completed vaccination.
Other states, nearby county publish breakthrough cases
Ohio is among a majority of U.S. states that track breakthrough hospitalizations and deaths, according to an Aug. 6 count by The Hill, but only a handful track the cases that lead to them.
Some local health departments in Ohio track and publish breakthrough cases, too, including Clark County. The health department, which serves 136,000 people east of Dayton, notes on its website the county has seen 125 breakthrough cases as of last Friday – 0.2% of the nearly 57,000 people fully vaccinated.
“We just feel that this is an important number for our community and for our public information campaign,” Clark County health commissioner Charles Patterson said, “that we are being as transparent as our public would want us to be to ensure that we’re not hiding anything.”
That’s not to say ODH is hiding anything, however. Patterson’s staffers do this cross-referencing by hand, comparing each case (name and birthdate) with Ohio’s vaccination database, because he said Ohio’s “antiquated” public health systems are unintegrated.
“It’s not computers talking. It’s not computers programming. It’s literally manual labor,” Patterson said. “This only happens because we’re paying staff to do this as part of their case investigation in each case.”
In Virginia, for example, the state’s health agency can track breakthrough cases only because it automatically integrated its COVID-19 case and vaccination systems.
“The process of comparing data in these systems used to be performed manually by a COVID-19 case investigator,” Virginia Department of Health epidemiologist Dr. Julia Murphy said.
This manual cross-referencing, Patterson said, gives “very accurate” data, but it’s “not perfect” because Ohio health officials – despite asking multiple times – cannot access federal vaccination registries, like those at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base or Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals.
Last week, Clark County found that 7.7% of its COVID-19 cases were breakthroughs.
“We’re using that number to provide accurate information for our public to say, ‘Wow, so that means that 92.3% of the cases last week were unvaccinated,’” Patterson said, “‘Okay, maybe we should get vaccinated.’”
Vanderhoff: Focus on breakthrough cases misses point of vaccines
In answering reporter questions, ODH Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff has said the most accurate breakthrough case data comes from targeted medical studies, and data collected on a statewide scale may not be as reliable.
“Gathering that information accurately across an entire country or across an entire state is really fraught,” he told reporters last Wednesday, “because so many people who become mildly or moderately ill with a respiratory virus like this don’t even seek testing or medical attention.”
Even the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped publishing breakthrough cases in May because hospitalizations and deaths are “of greatest clinical and public health importance.”
During a briefing last Tuesday, Gov. Mike DeWine said he would discuss with Vanderhoff and ODH about publishing breakthrough case data but said “the people we should be worried about are the people who are not vaccinated.”
A health department spokesperson did not respond to NBC4’s inquiry on the status of that discussion and if ODH plans to add breakthrough cases to its dashboard.
And although other states publish breakthrough cases, Vanderhoff has argued it’s not “telling us about the endpoint of that vaccine efficacy,” which for these vaccines is preventing the worst outcomes.
“Protection against severe illness and death was, in fact, the original target of these vaccines,” he said last Wednesday. “That these are vaccines against respiratory viruses, and that kind of vaccination rarely protects against more mild forms of infection as well as it does against serious illness.”
In the case of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, his COVID-19 infection last week was so easily fought by his vaccination that he tested negative just four days later.
“I’m told that my infection was brief and mild because of the vaccination that I received,” he said Saturday in a Twitter video. “So, I encourage others who have not yet received the vaccination to consider getting one.”