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Kentucky Releases First Look At COVID ‘Breakthrough’ Cases

Ryan Van Velzer

Kentucky reported for the first time Thursday the number of COVID-19 cases affecting the state’s vaccinated population.

The state reported 2,795 breakthrough cases of COVID-19 from March through July 21, representing less than 5% of total cases in that time period, said Gov. Andy Beshear at a press conference on Thursday.

Officials cautioned that number is likely an undercount because only those with the most severe symptoms are likely getting tested, and the vaccine is effective at preventing serious illness. Beshear said the low numbers of cases in vaccinated people demonstrates the vaccine’s effectiveness.

“Ninety-five percent of all positive cases were among unvaccinated individuals. That is an enormous statistic,” Beshear said.

A study released Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine found two-doses of the Pfizer vaccine was only slightly less effective against the Delta variant than the original variant (88% compared to 94%). 

But the number of breakthrough cases is rising. In June, the state reported 464 breakthrough cases. From July 1 through July 21, the state reported 1,007 breakthrough cases — already more than double the previous month. 

The increase in breakthrough cases coincides with a rise in total cases due to the Delta variant, which state health experts say has become the dominant strain in the state and is around 2.5 times more transmissible than the first iteration of the virus. 

Kentucky also reported 50 COVID-19 deaths Thursday among vaccinated people out of a total of 447 deaths from March through July 21. Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack said it’s likely many of those deaths are occurring among vulnerable populations.

“… say they had cancer diagnoses, on chemotherapy, or they had immunocompromised contradictions, that small of a sample size could have very legitimate reasons why, despite being vaccinated, they had a worse outcome,” Stack said Thursday. 

In total, more than 95% of the COVID cases and nearly 89% of deaths have been in the state’s unvaccinated population in the last five months.

The variant poses a greater threat to younger groups who are less likely to be vaccinated, particularly among children under the age of 12 who have not yet had the opportunity to receive a vaccination.

The new rise in cases comes just over a month after Beshear removed masking requirements  and ended capacity restrictions at businesses. 

Kentucky reported 51% of the state has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Thursday. 

Beshear issued several new recommendations Monday to further limit spread of the virus:

  • Unvaccinated Kentuckians should wear masks indoors when outside their home;
  • Kentuckians with pre-existing conditions should wear masks indoors when not in their home;
  • Vaccinated Kentuckians in jobs with significant public exposure should consider wearing a mask at work;
  • All unvaccinated Kentuckians, when eligible, should be vaccinated immediately.
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