The contagious nature of the Delta variant has meant breakthrough COVID cases are on the rise. Seven people tell us what it was like to have one.
In case you hadn’t already heard, COVID-19 numbers are ticking up again, even among people who are vaccinated. While unvaccinated people in the U.S. are contracting COVID at a much, much higher rate than those who’ve gotten the vaccine, the contagious nature of the Delta variant has meant breakthrough cases are on the rise, too.
Cities like Los Angeles have already reinstated mask mandates in response, while New York City has begun imposing vaccine mandates for people who wish to visit bars, restaurants, and gyms. Meanwhile, case numbers continue to climb. We spoke to seven people from around the United States about their breakthrough COVID experiences—the symptoms, the testing process, and how they’re feeling post-quarantine.
Do you know how you were exposed to COVID?
Brian Morgan, 48, Los Angeles, CA: I got my first dose of Moderna in January 2021 and my second February 2021. COVID symptoms started July 20th. I have an idea of where I think I may have gotten it, but it was definitely during the time where California’s government said it was safe to gather indoors without masks. I was at a few large indoor gatherings without a mask a week before the new mask mandates went into place.
Kyle O’Flaherty, 29, Brooklyn, NY: The weekend before I got sick, full admission, I had a bunch of social engagements kind of all stacked together: two birthday parties on Friday, a wedding on Saturday, and then like a day party on Sunday outdoors. Most of the things were in big spaces, I wouldn’t call anything necessarily “enclosed.” But they also kept me up late. I didn’t get a lot of sleep.
Daniel Merchant, 25, Brooklyn, NY/Portland, OR: I got vaccinated on April 7th at a public vaccination drive in Co-Op City, Bronx, right when the vaccine was made available to 18+ people. I got the J&J vaccine. I knew that I’d been exposed because three to four days before I started showing symptoms I was at a funeral, and then right after I started showing symptoms, I found out that my grandpa’s wife, who was there, tested positive (she’s a breakthrough case as well). Really unfortunate timing, because I went to another funeral the day before I found out I was exposed, so I had to text a ton of people that they’d been exposed too. Only one other person got it (also a breakthrough case!) which is a huge relief, but still a nightmare.
Jacob Hill, 42, Gonzales, LA: I was in meetings with one of the only other people who is vaccinated in my workplace, my boss. He got Johnson and Johnson, I had the Pfizer vaccine. We were in his office Tuesday and Wednesday, less than six feet apart and no masks; he calls me Thursday morning and says, ‘Hey, man, I’m running a fever.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, like, all right, I’ll kind of start watching myself for symptoms.’ Then he went to get a COVID test and he was like, ‘Look, I’m positive, you’re gonna have to isolate.’ The next day is when the headache started.
Marc Dweck, 30, Brooklyn, NY/Jersey Shore, NJ: For the summer, we live with family in New Jersey—there’s 16 of us in the house. We’re not sure who got it first. I was the first one to test positive, but a few people in the house weren’t feeling well before me. So who knows?
Silena Palazzola, 25, Los Angeles, CA: The first time I heard about a friend getting it was this last month—and I couldn’t tell you which one of my friends gave it to me, because two of them independently got it, and then I was exposed to both of them. They made the calls, that awkward, ‘Hey, she had a great time seeing you this weekend, but also you might want to go get tested and give people a wide berth for a few days.’
Chantal Smith, 38, Brooklyn, NY: I got vaccinated in April and I actually got Johnson&Johnson. My boyfriend was vaccinated in April, and he got Moderna. In mid July, I went to the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. You had to show a PCR test before you flew, and they had a mask mandate there. Flying back, we had an incident on the plane where someone wasn’t wearing a mask correctly and was sort of being belligerent. They actually got kicked off the plane—the police had to come on, and it was just a big pain in the ass. Two days later, my boyfriend started to complain that he felt like he had a summer cold.
What were your initial symptoms?
Smith: First, I had itchy eyes. The next night, I started to feel really sick—I had body aches and was feeling like I had a fever. I was like, this feels exactly what I felt like after I got vaccinated. I woke up the next day and said to my boyfriend, ‘Look, I think we should both go get tested.’
O’Flaherty: On the first day, I woke up tired and was tired at work. I had an ear infection and post-nasal drip on the left side, both of which are common for me. But later that night, my throat felt a little… interesting. The next day, I woke up tired again, but I still went into work. In the middle of the day, I started getting a headache and feeling that kind of hot, cold sensation. As soon as that happened, I just cancelled the rest of my day.
Merchant: I first started experiencing symptoms at the very end of July, maybe July 31st? I had a bit of a runny nose, some sneezing, and it felt like I had a minor sinus infection or allergies (not unusual when you’re in Oregon in the summertime). I realized I was fucked when I was making dinner with my mom, cooking something that involved garlic, lime, jalapeños and chili paste and I couldn’t smell a thing. Stuck my face in a bag of coffee, nada. Right after that, I told my parents to stay away from me.
Morgan: Mostly body aches, but later light sniffles and sore throat. After a week or so, I started developing a lack of smell and taste. I can taste basic sweet/sour/salty sensations now, but nuances of flavor are still diminished. Sense of smell is starting to come back, but still diminished.
Palazzola: I started feeling a tickle in my throat and then after three days of that, I was like, oh no, it’s getting worse.
What kind of test did you get, and where did you do it?
Merchant: I’ve had a few PCR tests post-vaccination. Another friend of mine was a super super early breakthrough case (like late April) so I got one at CityMD on Manhattan Ave in Greenpoint. My most recent PCR test (which confirmed that I had it) was OHSU in Portland.
Palazzola: I went into a Carbon Health urgent care center and did a rapid and it came back positive within an hour.
Dweck: I work in the wholesale industry; two weeks ago, I wasn’t feeling well, so I decided not to go to the office. I went to the doctor, the doctor said it was most likely an upper respiratory infection so there was no need to get tested, but if I wanted to, sure. So I got tested. The following morning, as I was waiting for results, I lost taste and smell. Then I knew that it was going to be a positive.
Morgan: Test was super easy here in LA. I got a nasal PCR test at a public testing site. Almost no wait on a Thursday morning.
Smith: I went to a CityMD urgent care in Williamsburg. There were a bunch of people outside.
O’Flaherty: I rode a bicycle to get tested at my doctor’s office, so it wasn’t like I was doing that badly. The irony is, I did have an ear infection. That’s one of the first things they found. It just happened to coincide with positive COVID.
Hill: We have a hospital here called Our Lady of the Lake Ascension. I called them, told them what my symptoms were, and they scheduled a test for me in the parking lot. I went there and I was like… number 170 in line. There were so many people there. And we’re not in a city—this is a small town.
What were your symptoms and how long did they last?
Morgan: All symptoms were pretty mild. In general, it felt like a very minor cold or flu. Body aches lasted maybe 4-5 days total. Sniffles and sore throat started a little later and lasted about 3-5 days. Lack of smell and taste is slowly coming back.
Palazzola: My symptoms got progressively worse for the next three or four days. I had a really bad sore throat—like, where swallowing anything hurts—and crazy fatigue. Then I got a little bit of congestion, but not much.
O’Flaherty: I was laid out for a bit. I quarantined for 10 days, but I was in a place where I would have called out sick from working for at least three if not four of those days, even in a world where there was no COVID. I was sweating through four or five t-shirts in a night, massive headaches, massive sinus pressure, not really a cough but lots of post-nasal drip. There were a couple days when I got back to work after I was negative and everything was fine, but I was just working half days, and then I’d come home and take a nap. I required tons of sleep.
Merchant: I couldn’t smell a goddamn thing. Strangely enough, I didn’t lose my sense of taste at all. Fair amount of sneezing, and a runny nose + sinus pressure. A few times I felt a little out of breath, but I didn’t have any crazy coughing fits. A little bit achy here and there. I felt absolutely exhausted for a while. I slept like 12-14 hours for like 4 days straight, which is really unusual for me. I’d say I had symptoms for a week.
Smith: It was maybe five or six days of just feeling that achy, tired, fevery sort of feeling and then a cough and a runny nose—but it was more of a body thing.
Hill: The day after my boss called is when the headache started. It’s funny because like, on a scale of one to 10, it was probably a three—nothing too punishing, just nagging. I think I ran a fever overnight once, because I woke up and I was sweating, but after that zero fever. Then I started getting a little bit stuffy in the nose, but that’s as far as it ever went with me. The stuffiness started to subside about four days into it, and that’s when I lost my taste and smell. That stayed gone for about another six days and then that came back. Nothing else for the entire duration.
Dweck: The first night I saw symptoms before I got tested, I had the chills, fevers, night sweats—exactly how I felt when I got vaccinated, which was sort of a red flag for me. And then I continued to have that and I wasn’t able to sleep for like four days in a row. I had body aches, congestion, fever throughout, just felt like garbage. As soon as I was able to sleep on the fourth night, I started to feel a little bit better and continually got better.
How are you feeling now?
Hill: I still feel a little bit foggy sometimes and I still feel pretty fatigued in the mornings—like my batteries are still a little bit lower than they should be. That’s got to be an after effect of COVID because I’m a real morning person.
Merchant: I’m finishing my isolation period today, and I feel pretty much completely normal, minus my smell, which has recovered maybe 20 percent? I can smell really strong odors, but it’s definitely not where it used to be. My guess is that it will come back with time (I really, really hope so).
Dweck: I still feel kind of weak and lethargic sometimes. My whole family got it, and we were all vaccinated, and our kids got it, who weren’t vaccinated unfortunately, because you can’t vaccinate babies. It’s annoying, but everyone’s doing good. Thank God.
Smith: For all intents and purposes, I’m better but I still feel kind of like shit. Every morning I wake up and I feel like I’m hungover even though I haven’t even had a drink. I’m coming into the third week of feeling like that—my boyfriend said he feels like he’s 60 percent better, and I’m maybe 80 to 90 percent better. We’re hoping that the next few days or the next couple of weeks, it’s going to go away, because it’s just been going off forever.
Morgan: Other than the lack of smell, I feel 100 percent recovered. Maybe even a little extra energy than before contracting COVID? I’ve heard of this effect with others, as well… increased energy post-recovery.
Any advice for people worried about breakthrough COVID?
Smith: If you have a scratchy throat or something that you’re not sure about, get tested. It is a pain but it’s free.
Morgan: On a spiritual level, just allow it and don’t resist that you have it. Don’t dwell on fear or negative effects. Have compassion for yourself and others during this challenging time. We’ve been given an opportunity to come together in a time when many forces are trying to divide us. Choose love and understanding and try to see yourself reflected in the people you encounter.
Hill: Wear the mask, take your precautions. But then again, if you’ve had the vaccine, go out and live your life. Take all the safety precautions, but if you’ve been vaccinated, you’re in pretty good shape. It’s just gonna take 10 days out of your life, that’s all.
Dweck: Trust the medical professionals that are recommending whatever care or procedures they’re recommending, for sure. And I’d definitely recommend getting vaccinated, because who knows—I could have been the person who ended up having to go to the hospital, instead of just being at home and not feeling well.
Merchant: I think it’s totally reasonable to reconsider how much we’ve been socializing, and that we’ve got a long way to go before things truly get back to normal, but I don’t think it’s helpful to freak out about it. The data shows that the vaccines are crazy effective at preventing serious illness, and we should rely on that rather than random anecdotes about people who got sick.
O’Flaherty: I have my own physical therapy practice, so I’m super active, and pretty fit. And I’m glad I had the vaccine—that was my biggest surprise, was being like, Oh, OK. This is what it’s like having it even with the vaccine.