I’m Vaccinated And Still Got COVID-19. Here’s What A Breakthrough Case Is Like.

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After I was fully vaccinated in April, I felt like it was finally over: the pandemic, mask mandates, the looming threat of lockdowns. By mid-July, I was so confident that things were safer, I booked a flight to visit an old college friend in Seattle, my sole mini-vacay this summer.

My cousin, who drove me to the airport, warned me that she’d been sick a few days. I put on my face mask as I rode with her but at the time thought it was only a summer cold. A week later, I was back home in Alabama where my brother said he couldn’t hug me because he caught whatever my cousin had.

A week after that, my mother fell ill. That was when I first heard the ominous words: breakthrough case. My mother speculated that she had a breakthrough case of delta, a highly contagious COVID-19 variant that’s surging across much of the country right now, especially here in the Deep South.

Impossible, I thought. Every member of my immediate family had been vaccinated months before: my brother with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and my cousin, my mother and me with Pfizer.

Yes, we live in central Alabama, the heart of the delta variant uptick, a state where it’s been common throughout the whole pandemic to see numbers of mask-less folks at grocery stores and restaurants. Yet I didn’t think a new variant could be so strong it could infect each inoculated relative.

Then, late in the evening on July 31, I felt achy and congested.

When I awoke the next morning, I felt like I had a vise grip around my skull and my lymph nodes were slightly swollen. I was definitely ill. Even though I still doubted that I had COVID, I decided to get tested because I was planning on visiting a close friend the following day, someone who was still fighting “long-haul” symptoms from his own bout with the coronavirus. 

I knew how serious this disease was. Last summer, while I was still living and working as a journalist in upstate New York, I was sick for two weeks with what I’m almost certain was coronavirus. I had chills and sweats, a high fever, congestion and a headache that lasted days, all the telltale symptoms except, interestingly, a loss of smell or taste. 

While I was still symptomatic last year, I drove to a local testing site that said a nurse or volunteer would administer the test for me. However, I ended up having to swab my own nose and, knowing what I know now, I’m positive I didn’t do a good enough job.

A week later, my results came back negative, even though I was still quarantining at home, still burning with icy fever and floating through a kind of mental fog that could best be described as hallucinatory. 

This time last year, COVID testing was still notoriously unreliable. News stories of multiple false negatives before a positive test were common. If what I had last June was indeed the virus that’s shuttered the globe and killed millions, then I can easily say it was the worst sickness I’ve ever had.

Though I made a full recovery last year, the virus took everything else from me. I had a good life in New York’s Capital Region working as a writer for a local magazine and, as a side hustle, teaching guitar and ukulele. 

Because of the pandemic, I lost my writing gig and the music academy where I taught closed its doors for good. Four years of working and living in the Empire State were washed away after just four months of the coronavirus.

Like so many others over the course of this crazy pandemic, I moved back home. I wanted to be closer to my family, and I thought I would be safer out in the country. I was wrong.

Alabama is probably the worst spot to get infected with the coronavirus right now, especially if you’re uninsured like me. Not only is it one of the least vaccinated states in the country, not only is the delta variant raging out of control here (our neighbor Florida has been reporting record numbers of new daily infections), but Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has refused for years to expand Medicaid in the state.