I always imagined that if I heard the word “breakthrough” associated with my name, it would be for a breakthrough discovery or a breakthrough theory or a breakthrough achievement. I didn’t think it would be for a breakthrough infection. But here it is: I’ve been vaccinated, and I’ve had covid.
Anyone who has read my posts over the past 18 months knows that I’m not afraid of this virus, and I’m not a fan of masks, lockdowns, or essential workers. (To be more precise, I like essential workers; I’m not a fan of the concept that some workers are more essential than others.)
When news of the virus first surfaced, I took precautions. I stocked up on food and medical supplies, wiped down the handle of my shopping cart at the grocery store, and vigorously cleaned all surfaces when a weekend visitor mentioned that he had been to Seattle the previous week. With more than 60,000 homeless people in southern California, I also expected to see dead bodies on the sidewalks. That didn’t happen.
I’m not afraid of this virus, and I’m not a fan of masks, lockdowns, or the concept that some workers are more essential than others.
I’m a social person. In real life, I have dinner parties almost weekly. I travel regularly. Those first three months of lockdown felt like living in Bizarro World. I took long walks in the canyon near our home, long swims in the pool, long bike rides through the neighborhood — and never talked to a soul besides my husband. When I did happen to encounter people on a hiking trail, they would pull back in horror, covering their masked faces with their jackets. It was almost like being dead.
Eventually my husband and I started nosing our way out of the cave. We went to house parties, hosted a few gatherings at our home, discovered “speakeasies” that provided food, socializing, and live music. We took several weeklong road trips to state and national parks, attended a couple of conferences, and even went to the White House Christmas party. Each time I would be a bit more cautious for a few days afterward, avoiding public places until I was sure I wasn’t infected or contagious.
And then the Delta variant made the virus much more contagious. More people were contracting it, at younger ages and without the comorbidities that had made me feel reasonably safe (because I don’t have them). The vaccines were still at the experimental stage, and adverse reactions were being reported. I was — and still am — concerned about side effects that might not be discovered for a couple of years or more. But millions had taken the vaccines without incident, and with FreedomFest around the corner, where we would be meeting with 2,700 people, my husband and I finally felt that the risk of the disease outweighed the risk of the vaccine. As we got the jab, the pharmacist said, “There’s still a 28% chance you’ll get it, but it will be mild if you do.”
My husband had no side effects whatsoever from the vaccine — not even a sore arm at the injection site. I, on the other hand, have never felt such excruciating body pain — and I’ve birthed five children. Six hours after the jab my teeth began chattering from the chills, my temperature rose, and for 15 hours my back, shoulders and neck were on fire. The pharmacist had warned us that pain meds would lessen the efficacy of the vaccine, so I endured it, but I was sobbing by the end.
As we got the jab, the pharmacist said, “There’s still a 28% chance you’ll get it, but it will be mild if you do.”
And then — a few weeks later, I got covid anyway. It started with a sore throat that I thought was from spluttering on some orange juice when my grandson made me laugh at breakfast. As the day wore on I continued to cough, my throat was raw, and my ears started to ache. I googled “covid symptoms,” and learned from every website that the way to know whether it’s a cold or covid is that covid begins with a fever. I had no fever, so it was a cold. Right?
Wrong. It was covid.
The cough continued, and fatigue set in. Five days later the fever and headache began, accompanied by a sinus infection that produced a terrible toothache. Days 6 through 12 were a blur of fever, chills, and spasms of coughing whenever I moved. I settled into a position in bed and stayed there, nibbling on watermelon and bananas that my husband put next to my pillow. By this time he had it too, but he was more functional. We were grateful that our symptoms did not include a runny or stuffy nose, and we could breathe. Nevertheless, my mouth was dry and cottony, especially at night. I coughed deeply, but I never developed chest pains or worried that I might die.
Then one morning I woke up and I knew that I was fine. And I am. It’s taking a while to rebuild my stamina and strength after a month of doing nothing, but I’m definitely not sick.
We both took hydroxycloroquine and he took ivermectin, but I really didn’t see any improvement from them; perhaps we had waited too long to start that therapy. Our doctor prescribed an antibiotic for my sinus and tooth infection, steroids and an inhaler to protect our lungs, a pulse oximeter to keep track of the oxygen in our blood, and a cough syrup. If our symptoms had worsened we could have received an IV solution or portable oxygen at the ER as outpatients, without being admitted to the hospital.
The tooth cleared up, but the other medications didn’t seem to have much effect. Over-the-counter Mucinex helped the most in breaking up the cough, and regular Tylenol and Aleve helped with fever and headache. I did worry about developing long covid as I entered the third week of languishing fatigue. But then one morning I woke up and I knew that I was fine. And I am. It’s taking a while to rebuild my stamina and strength after a month of doing nothing, but I’m definitely not sick.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the past month about fever, vaccines, and covid: the disease progresses differently for those who have been vaccinated and those who have not. There are two types of immunoglobins at play here: IgA, which appears in the respiratory tract, and IgG, an antibody that is found in blood serum. The covid virus is a respiratory infection, and collects in the mucous membranes in the respiratory tract, especially the nose and the back of the throat. But the vaccine is injected into the muscle, and according to the reports I’ve read, these injected vaccines are not very good at producing the IgA immunoglobulin or fighting the viruses that gather in the mucous membranes. When the virus begins to collect in a person’s throat, vaccinated or not, it is likely to multiply and make its way down to the lungs and the rest of the body. You have covid, but you aren’t likely to develop the telltale fever until a few days later if you’ve been vaccinated.
That’s where the vaccine does its job. According to health writer James Gallagher, “The power-couple of the immune system that clears the body of infection are antibodies and T-cells. Antibodies stick to the surface of the virus and mark it for destruction. T-cells can spot which of our own cells have been hijacked by the virus and destroy them” (“Covid: What’s the Best Way to Top Up Your Immunity?” BBC News).
When the virus begins to collect in a person’s throat, vaccinated or not, it is likely to multiply and make its way down to the lungs and the rest of the body.
The T-cells are alerted by the vaccine to watch for cells that have antibodies (or the spike part of the virus) attached to them, and they begin attacking the infected cells. I remember watching a film in grade school health science in which the red corpuscles and white corpuscles donned military uniforms to duke it out with the disease soldiers, while white corpuscles were carried away on stretchers. I was pretty impressed — and a little frightened — by what was going on inside my body! We feel sick and feverish during the battle, but usually our T-cells win the war and the virus is vanquished.
The present vaccines are pretty successful at protecting the lungs and other organs from major damage, so we’re seeing fewer hospitalizations of people who have been vaccinated before becoming infected. But the mucous membranes are relatively unprotected by these vaccines, and that’s why we’re having so-called “breakthrough infections.” They aren’t an anomaly, and they shouldn’t even be surprising, given what we’re learning about how they work and where the virus collects. Researchers are working on a vaccine that can be administered as a throat or nasal spray instead of, or in addition to, the injection. I expect that this will be much more effective at preventing the illness, and the endless rounds of boosters now being touted will not be necessary. I also think it’s time to focus on new treatments to lessen the effects of the disease.
I also think the virus itself is the most effective booster you can get, although it isn’t fun being sick. Even after having contracted the disease, I stand by my earlier writings: it is a mistake to close down the world to avoid getting this disease. Yes, many people have died, and that’s a sad thing. But over 98% of those who get it survive! Others have incurred longterm effects, and that’s perhaps even harder to deal with. But it still isn’t worth shutting down the world and the totalitarian precedent it is setting. If I never shake the fatigue and ennui, I would not change my mind about that. If I had healthy children under the age of 16, and certainly under the age of 12, I would probably just let them get sick and get over it. Most children (including five of my grandchildren) experience a couple of days of fever and fatigue. They sleep through it, and they’re done with it. And they should be allowed to take off their masks and get on with life.