The Oregon Health Authority says two of the four Oregonians fully vaccinated against COVID-19 who later tested positive did not have any of the more contagious variants.
State officials declined to clearly answer questions about the other two cases, including whether samples were analyzed to determine if the individuals had coronavirus variants.
State officials announced the so-called “breakthrough cases” during a news conference Feb. 12, saying they were thought to be among the first identified in the nation. Officials ordered genomic sequencing to determine if the vaccinated Oregonians had been infected with variants, with results expected within seven days.
But state officials in emails last week initially declined to answer any questions from The Oregonian/OregonLive about the four cases — including whether they had been infected with the viral variants first detected in the United Kingdom or Brazil. Officials cited “patient privacy.”
The news organization disagreed that doing so would breach patient privacy and argued that sharing information would further the public’s understanding of the virus’ behavior.
In response, agency leadership met and decided to release limited information, according to spokesman Tim Heider. The agency eventually said samples from two of the individuals had been analyzed “and there were no variants of concern detected.”
He did not respond to questions about the other two cases.
Heider also declined to answer questions about the circumstances under which the four Oregonians were vaccinated, including the amount of time that had passed since their second doses, if they’d been exposed to the virus before the second dose had become fully effective, and if the virus had been in their systems for some time.
But state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger had said during the Feb. 12 news conference that they had tested positive at least two weeks after their second doses. Sidelinger and Health Authority Director Patrick Allen also said the cases were of national interest because they were among the first breakthrough cases to be reported in the nation.
Sidelinger had told reporters that the Health Authority was in the process of starting genome sequencing of samples taken from the individuals — indicating that scientists wanted to know if these were cases of the mutated virus slipping past the defense systems offered by the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or whether this was simply an expected, mathematical probability given that the vaccines aren’t 100% effective.
Both vaccines have an efficacy estimated at close to 95%.
Two of the four Oregonians are from Yamhill County and two are from Lane County. They either had no symptoms or mild symptoms — evidence, Sidelinger had said, that the vaccines are working to ward off severe disease. He added that two of the cases were related — meaning they were infected from the same cluster of infections at a single location.
State officials have not provided more information. But the circumstances of testing individuals with no symptoms suggest that at least some of the four might work in congregate care settings, where testing is mandatory at least once a month.
So far, Oregon has identified 11 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant which was first detected in the U.K. and one case of the P.1 variant, which is linked to Brazil. But medical experts have criticized the U.S. for its lack of screening for the variants. Oregon is averaging about 300 cases per a day — 99% which weren’t being reviewed for variants, as of February.
Oregon Health & Science University, which has identified 11 of Oregon’s 12 variant cases, estimated 1% of the cases statewide involve the B.1.1.7 variant. It’s unclear why some experts estimate the national percentages are much larger.
Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that a month ago the B.1.1.7 variant made up 1% to 4% of cases in the U.S.
He said it’s now estimated to be up to 30% to 40%, and when it reaches 50% cases are likely to surge.
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