In a letter to the editor in The New England Journal of Medicine, Keehner et al describe a marked resurgence of COVID-19 infections among fully vaccinated members of the University of California San Diego Health (UCSDH) workforce in July 2021. The resurgence appears to be driven by the confluence of emergence of the SARS–CoV-2 delta variant, the ending of California’s mask mandate, and waning immunity after completed vaccination.
The study involved data from the UCSDH workforce, which ranged in number between 18,964 and 19,035 from March through July 2021. Vaccination with mRNA vaccines began in mid-December 2020. In 2021, percentages of fully vaccinated workers were: 76.3% in March (6,608 with Moderna mRNA-1273 and 7,862 with Pfizer–BioNTech BNT162b2), 81.7% in April (7,005 and 8,505), 85.0% in May (7,340 and 8,817), 86.3% in June (7,451 and 8,975), and 86.7% in July (7,464 and 9,028). Numbers of unvaccinated workers were 3,230; 2,509; 2,187; 2,059; and 1,895 in the corresponding months. In the UCSDH health system, SARS–CoV-2 testing is triggered by the presence of at least one symptom during daily screening or by an identified exposure regardless of vaccination status.
The number of symptomatic COVID-19 infections among fully vaccinated and unvaccinated workers were: 3 and 11 in March (21.4% of cases in vaccinated workers), 4 and 17 in April (19.0%), 3 and 10 in May (23.1%), and 5 and 10 in June (33.3%). California’s mask mandate ended on June 15, while an increasing dominance of the delta variant was observed. The variant first emerged in mid-April; by the end of July, it accounted for more than 95% of UCSDH isolates. Concurrent with these factors, the number of cases in July increased to 94 among fully vaccinated workers and 31 among unvaccinated workers, with cases in vaccinated workers accounting for 75.2% of all cases. Attack rates per 1,000 population among fully vaccinated vs unvaccinated workers were 0.21 vs 3.4 in March, 0.26 vs 6.8 in April, 0.19 vs 4.6 in May, 0.30 vs 4.9 in June, and 5.7 vs 16.4 in July.
Overall, during the 5 months, 227 workers tested positive for SARS–CoV-2, including 130 (57.3%) who were fully vaccinated. Symptoms were present in 109 (83.3%) of the 130 fully vaccinated workers and in 80 (88.9%) of the 90 unvaccinated workers; the remaining 7 workers were only partially vaccinated. One unvaccinated worker was hospitalized for infection. No deaths were reported.
Vaccine effectiveness was calculated for each month, with the case definition being a positive polymerase chain reaction test and one or more symptoms among workers with no previous COVID-19 infection. Vaccine efficacy rates were 93.9% (95% confidence interval [CI] = 78.2%–97.9%) in March, 96.2% (95% CI = 88.7%–98.3%) in April, 95.9% (95% CI = 85.3%–98.9%) in May, and 94.3% (83.7%–98.0%) in June, dropping to 65.5% (95% CI = 48.9%–76.9%) in July.
Analysis of cases in July according to the month of completion of the vaccination series showed attack rates per 1,000 population of 6.7 (95% CI = 5.9–7.8) in workers completing vaccination in January or February compared with 3.7 (95% CI = 2.5–5.7) among those completing vaccination in March through May. As noted, the attack rate in July was 16.4 (95% CI = 11.8–22.9)/1,000 among unvaccinated workers.
The investigators stated, “The dramatic change in vaccine effectiveness from June to July is likely to be due to both the emergence of the delta variant and waning immunity over time, compounded by the end of masking requirements in California and the resulting greater risk of exposure in the community. Our findings underline the importance of rapidly reinstating nonpharmaceutical interventions, such as indoor masking and intensive testing strategies, in addition to continued efforts to increase vaccinations, as strategies to prevent avoidable illness and deaths and to avoid mass disruptions to society during the spread of this formidable variant. Furthermore, if our findings on waning immunity are verified in other settings, booster doses may be indicated.”
Francesca J. Torriani, MD, of UC San Diego Health, is the corresponding author for The New England Journal of Medicine article.
Disclosure: For full disclosures of the study authors, visit nejm.org.The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.