I Took COVID Precautions and Still Got a Breakthrough Infection

Natalia Pasternak, PhD


January 14, 2022

I have a breakthrough COVID infection. With the Omicron variant spreading globally, cases are rising again and I know I'm not alone. My case is mild, but it is evidence of just how vulnerable we still are in this pandemic.

I live in New York. When the travel ban lifted in November, my mother came to visit and wanted to see the city. My mother is fully vaccinated and boosted, I am fully vaccinated with two doses, but I'm still waiting for my 6-month booster shot, due this month in January.

New York changed a lot in December. Many tourists came, and walking on Broadway or Fifth Avenue became an exercise of dodging people and making a path through crowds. Not everyone was wearing a mask and I wondered whether people understood their risk. Some people were probably under the impression that masks are not needed outdoors, but the truth is that even out in the open, if there are lots of people close by, the chances of getting infected rise. Of course, indoors is much more dangerous, so I was alarmed to see that there were so many people without masks in the subway too. And some of the people with masks were letting them droop with their noses sticking out, which will not protect them or the people around them.

Not taking the subway was not an option for me to get to work, so I tried to protect myself as best I could. But there were days when the subway was so full that it was difficult to get in and out.

My mother wanted to visit museums when she visited and I thought it would be okay since we were both vaccinated and would wear masks the whole time. But a week later, the first symptoms started.

I felt tired and was coughing. And my husband started coughing with a runny nose and sore throat. The tests confirmed our suspicions: We both had COVID breakthrough infections. My mother tested negative and so did my daughter. But family gathering was over for us and quarantine began.

Tested Positive

Vaccination likely protected my husband and me from serious disease, but even as mild cases, COVID was tough. I felt tired all the time and it was hard to get almost any work done. And the thing about being in quarantine with an infectious disease is that you get no help from outside sources. If you have a fever and wake up in soaked bed linens, you have to get out of bed and do the washing yourself. I'll take basic housekeeping over hospitalization, but trying to take care of things while feeling so unwell isn't easy either.

I don't have confirmation yet that my case was Omicron, but my breakthrough infection tells me that we are still vulnerable to COVID and we are not going to solve this pandemic unless we think on a global scale.

The new variant was detected in South Africa, thanks to an excellent genomic surveillance system, and now the world anxiously watches to see how this new chapter of the pandemic will play out.

Right when vaccination was picking up pace in many countries, and the hope of a return to normalcy seemed close, we are forced to acknowledge what we already knew: that no one is safe until everyone is safe, and we need a global vaccination program to assist low-income and middle-income countries that are still struggling to get vaccines.

New Chapter

What we know so far about Omicron is that it is more contagious and has the ability to partly escape vaccines and previous immunity. This makes it a challenge to stop from spreading and sets the world in a state of alarm.

We know that this variant meets a different world compared with the previous variants now that more people are vaccinated, and more people are at least partially protected after prior infection. It is expected that in those people, the virus will not be able to cause severe disease, but we don't know how Omicron will behave in an unvaccinated population or in the elderly.

Virus variants won't be stopped by closing borders and implementing travel restrictions, but they will be halted by global vaccination programs and booster shots. And they can be stopped with those simple preventive measures that people are starting to forget: mask wearing and avoiding large gatherings.

I learned firsthand that vaccines can protect from severe disease, and now it's time to make sure everyone gets their booster shots. We already gained so much compared with last year, so let's celebrate what we have and not rush back to our pre-pandemic habits.

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About Dr Natalia Pasternak
Natalia Pasternak, PhD, has a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of São Paulo and a PhD and postdoctoral fellowship in microbiology (bacterial genetics) at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences. In 2018, she founded the Instituto Questão de Ciência in Brazil, the first Brazilian institute for the promotion of skepticism and critical thinking. She is the publisher of Questão de Ciência magazine; a columnist or contributor for O Globo newspaper, CBN radio, and The Skeptic magazine (United Kingdom); and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (United States). Currently, she works as a visiting scholar at the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University in New York, NY, and is a visiting professor at the Public Administration School at Fundação Getulio Vargas, São Paulo.


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