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Current Omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1 has triggered many breakthrough COVID-19 infections within the United States, triggering up to 50% of new infections across the country.
The length of a breakthrough sickness often depends on whether an individual has been fully vaccinated and if their vaccinations are up to date, as well as personal medical history.
Many sick individuals can expect to recover in a window of two weeks — but there are shorter recovery windows in many cases, as outlined below.
In this article, you'll learn about: 11 Potential breakthrough Omicron symptoms to expect; how long COVID-19 symptoms last for those who are vaccinated; how booster vaccines may impact the length of sickness; and how long you'll need to quarantine if you're already vaccinated.
While a slight majority of Americans have received a full vaccination against COVID-19 sometime over the past few years — the figure stands at around 60%, according to public data — new variations of SARS-CoV-2 are proving to be more contagious than ever before. The new Omicron subvariant, known as BA.2.12.1 by researchers currently chronicling its spread, has been purported to be 25% more contagious than earlier Omicron strains and has led to an uptick in breakthrough COVID-19 cases. And data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in mid-May indicates that the latest subvariant may be responsible for upwards of 50% of new COVID-19 cases across the United States.
But this particular strain of the virus hasn't been known to be increasingly deadly or incapacitating for those who have stayed up to date on their vaccination series. Healthcare providers have noted that breakthrough infection symptoms associated with this highly contagious variant are remaining mild — a much different reality than for those who are unvaccinated, or are experiencing a second or third reinfection.
"COVID-19 vaccines are doing exactly what they're supposed to do — prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death. What they don't do is guarantee you won't get infected at all," says Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, DrPH, the director of the public health program at the University of California, Irvine. "Breakthrough cases occur when COVID-19 variants evade the body's immune response… but most breakthrough cases are asymptomatic or mild, due to the vaccinated person having built-up immunity against the virus."
CDC study of nearly 300M people & 80% of U.S. counties found that higher #COVID19 vaccine coverage was associated with fewer COVID-19 cases & deaths.
Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines to protect yourself from severe illness from COVID-19.
More: https://t.co/aYgzkoszpA. pic.twitter.com/9T6YNK1kYE
— CDC (@CDCgov) May 18, 2022
A major concern for those affected by a breakthrough COVID-19 illness, then, is how long recovery will take. A majority of vaccinated Americans are now treating their symptoms while in recovery sequestered at home, Boden-Albala adds — but not every recovery process is the same.
Read further to learn how immune responses address cold-like symptoms at the onset of a breakthrough COVID-19 sickness, giving you a picture of how long you'll likely need to make a full recovery.
11 Potential Breakthrough Omicron BA.2.12.1 symptoms to expect:
Vaccines are the most protective and effective form of COVID-19 prevention available — but many don't realize current vaccines aren't designed to avert COVID-19 transmission entirely, as "their strength is in preventing systemic illness and serious illness in the lungs," explains Peter F. Wright, M.D., infectious disease and international health practitioner for New Hampshire's largest academic medical system, Dartmouth Health.
Feeling sick while experiencing a breakthrough infection is entirely likely, though, as upwards of 60% of all breakthrough illnesses resulted in mild illness that didn't require hospitalization, according to materials published by the American Medical Association (AMA).
The most accurate way to tell if you're currently experiencing a breakthrough COVID-19 illness is to get tested. And since no two COVID-19 cases result in the same kinds of symptoms with the same severity, or progression, current breakthrough cases triggered by BA.2.12.1 can lead to any combination of known COVID-19 symptoms that researchers have noted over the course of the pandemic.
Experiencing two or more of the following symptoms, especially if they're severe, should prompt you to get tested. Here are all known COVID-19 symptoms associated with the current Omicron subvariant wave, according to the CDC:
Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
Fever or chills
Fatigue or body aches
New loss of taste or smell
Congestion, runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
Healthcare experts have established in the past that SARS-CoV-2 variants may trigger one set of symptoms more commonly than others — and the same is true for the current viral Omicron subvariant, BA.2.12.1. This specific variant has been noted to cause upper respiratory issues that some may easily mistake for seasonal allergies; early symptoms often include scratchy or sore throat, sneezing, or a runny nose.
Getting tested at the onset of these symptoms, even if you're someone who normally experiences seasonal allergies during this time of year, can enable you to shorten your recovery time. Even those suffering mild COVID-19 symptoms can ask for an antiviral treatment that may dramatically lessen the length of your sickness, and boost your recovery overall.
How long do COVID-19 symptoms last if I'm vaccinated?
Unfortunately, it's impossible to know how long a breakthrough case will present symptoms, as each case is unique and your personal health history may influence the length (and severity) of your recovery. But experts have eagerly documented current and earlier Omicron-based outbreaks in major cities across the country, allowing them to have a better idea of how well vaccines are protecting individuals and influencing recovery periods in 2022.
As a general rule, breakthrough COVID-19 cases often present symptoms that may affect individuals acutely anywhere from a few days up to two full weeks, Boden-Albala clarifies. But as the current viral strain of SARS-CoV-2, BA.2.12.1, often results in milder symptoms in a majority of cases, the likelihood of symptoms extending beyond a full week isn't high.
This is why current CDC quarantine rules have been adapted in recent months, Dr. Wright explains. "I would suggest that an infection that occurs after vaccination would last, on average, about four to five days, and would be accompanied by a runny nose, sore throat and cough," he adds.
There are exceptions for those individuals, particularly those already considered at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness, who end up experiencing post-COVID syndrome — otherwise known as "Long" Covid.
"It can and does occur in a small percentage of cases. This means that some common symptoms, like cough, fatigue, body aches, and shortness of breath, among others, can linger beyond 2 weeks," Boden-Albala says. "Still, breakthrough cases are less likely to cause long-COVID."
How does a booster vaccine impact the length of a sickness?
Staying up-to-date on your booster vaccines, which are additional shots given to prime your immune system after your first two mRNA-based vaccinations, can shorten the length of your sickness. In line with what vaccine experts have previously established, Dr. Wright explains that vaccine antibodies decrease naturally over time, and lower amounts of this immunity often result in a longer breakthrough sickness. Getting a third booster shot (or in other cases, fourth shot) when it's available to you enables your immune system to better respond to a breakthrough infection in the long run.
If you're currently in recovery from a breakthrough COVID-19 case, you may be wondering if it's too late to get a third or fourth vaccine dose. Usually, healthcare providers ask that sick individuals wait until they've recovered and no longer must quarantine to think about signing up for an additional COVID-19 vaccine — but CDC officials note that some may choose to wait an additional 12 weeks from the end of their recovery. "Reinfection is less likely in the weeks to months after infection," the CDC guidance page reads. "Certain factors, such as personal risk of severe disease, local COVID-19 community level, and the dominant COVID-19 variant, could be reasons to get a vaccine sooner rather than later."
Updated @CDCgov data for vaccine protection from death, per 1000,000 people
—Substantial absolute risk reduction across all 3 groups over time since peak of Omicron BA.1 wave
—Persistent high relative risk reduction of vaccination 87%, and with booster 92%https://t.co/HGyjNwCm0v pic.twitter.com/PCp2EPDttC
— Eric Topol (@EricTopol) May 20, 2022
Many individuals experiencing a breakthrough COVID-19 illness that doesn't result in any symptoms (referred to as asymptomatic), as some level of earned immunity is often at play here, Boden-Albala explains. As much as 30% of current breakthrough cases here in the U.S. involve asymptomatic cases, and the figure is often largely underreported as many individuals may not feel the need to get tested.
This is where booster vaccines often come in, as staying up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccinations – including signing up for a fourth shot if you're over the age of 50 — is crucial to avoid future spread of other SARS-CoV-2 variants. "Immunity wanes over time, making herd immunity a moving target," Boden-Albala says. "This leaves open the opportunity for new variants that evade the vaccines to emerge, so we need to continue to vaccinate as much of the U.S. and global population as possible."
How long you must quarantine during a COVID-19 sickness if you're vaccinated:
Recently updated guidelines set forth by CDC officials indicate that those who test positive for COVID-19 must be isolated at home for at least five days. These guidelines indicate that sick individuals should only break their isolation if they've been free of a fever, without the help of medication, for at least 24 hours.
As of May 19th, over 45% of the U.S. population is in an area with a medium or high COVID-19 Community Level.
🟠At high COVID-19 Community Levels, people should be masking.
🟡At medium levels, people should consider masking based on personal risk. https://t.co/x7uA1gT4ja pic.twitter.com/OG7dOtOE0J
— Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH (@CDCDirector) May 20, 2022
But experts add that those who continue to test positive via rapid, at-home tests should still be considered infectious, and remain quarantined to minimize the risk of getting others around them sick.
"In patients who are largely asymptomatic, staying isolated to prevent spread to family members and close contacts — particularly if those contacts are immunocompromised or elderly — is important, with no specific treatment beyond rest indicated," Dr. Wright says.
Your recovery period (and subsequent isolation) may be lessened if you take advantage of current antiviral treatments, including the prescribed outpatient treatment Paxlovid, as well as a few other options.
"There are additional treatment options available for vaccinated people over age 65, or those with high-risk comorbidities that experience a breakthrough COVID case," Boden-Albala adds. "One of those options is monoclonal antibody treatment; these drugs are administered through an IV that work like the body's natural antibodies in fighting off disease."
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