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Shawn Vestal: Conspiratorial spin doesn’t align with facts on breakthrough cases and vax mandate

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks to the media after he toured a mass Covid-19 vaccination site at Spokane Arena earlier this year. Inslee was in Spokane on Wednesday and called on Idaho politicians to do more to control infection rates.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)


Have you heard this one? “THEY KNEW” is what the tweeters and radio-show conspiracists have been hollering lately as they scribble the latest chapter in the long, dumb book of COVID and anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories.

They, who?

Why, Gov. Jay Inslee and the evil flying monkeys lining the ramparts of his lair in Olympia, of course.

Knew what?

Why, that the COVID vaccines “didn’t stop the spread” – or were “a lie” or “completely useless” in the more feverish takes – a month before implementing a vaccine mandate for state employees and health care.

This narrative is built upon the sands of documents obtained by conservative radio talk jock Ari Hoffman, who obtained emails showing that state and local officials were discussing the fact that there were breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in the weeks before the vaccine mandate was implemented in August 2021.

“A month before he imposed vaccine mandates that were copied by cities & counties in WA Democrat Governor Jay Inslee, state & local health officials knew the vax didn’t stop the spread,” Hoffman tweeted, leading off a thread highlighting some of the documents.

This has now been spun up into a blockbuster “expose” on the anti-vaxxer right where a pandemic that took hundreds of thousands of lives is framed chiefly as a tragic, heartbreaking assault on the unvaccinated. Hoffman retailed his “scoop” on the Todd Herman show – where Herman referred to the pandemic response as “the greatest lie in human history” leading to the “greatest kill-off in human history,” and claimed the mRNA shots are actually “gene-sequencing” devices – and in other conservative forums, including a credulous mention in a recent Sue Lani Madsen column.

The problem is that it doesn’t hold up to even a little bit of scrutiny.

Because it’s true that THEY KNEW there were breakthrough COVID cases among the vaccinated before the mandate was implemented.



As more and more people were vaccinated in early 2021, the fact that there were breakthrough infections was widely reported, in Washington and nationally. It was far from secret, far from “behind the scenes.”

The state Department of Health issued the first news releases about it as early as March 2021, three months before the mandate. Virtually every news outlet in the state covered it at that point and in the weeks to come.

Health districts put out statements about the cases – which were quite rare at the time. Roughly 4.28 million Washingtonians had been vaccinated in the first six months of the year, with 2,925 breakthrough cases in fully vaccinated people, according to statistics made public by the DOH in July.

That’s .068%.

Most of those infections were mild, but not all. Forty-five fully-vaccinated people died of a COVID-related illness. Most had an underlying condition and lived in a long-term care facility.

Those are sad facts, but the larger context had not changed: the vaccines made it far less likely you would contract a symptomatic infection, require hospitalization or die from the disease, and the disease was beginning to surge again almost – but not quite – entirely due to cases among the unvaxxed.

If you listened closely, which many of us did not, as jubilant as we were over the advent of the vaccines, public health officials talked about the virus in those terms from the first, frequently citing an effectiveness of 90% against symptomatic infection.

Even as the omicron surge snuck around the wall of vaccine protection and drove infections among the vaccinated to much higher rates later in 2021, it remained true – right up to the present – that the shots were very effective against severe disease and hospitalization, and had to be a strong component of any effective campaign to end the pandemic.

Whether you supported the mandate or not, the rationale for it had not changed. Fewer sick people, less viral load in the community, helping to stop the spread.

“I think a lot of people think of vaccines as shields, these impenetrable walls that the virus is not supposed to get across, but the reality is a little more complicated than that,” Angie Rasmussen, a virologist from the University of Saskatchewan, said in a KUOW Public Radio story on the breakthroughs in July 2021.

“There will be breakthrough infections. The thing to watch and the thing to be concerned about is how many of those breakthrough infections are people who are ending up in the hospital; how many are getting really, really sick? In that sense, people should not be really worried about it.”

Here’s an example of one of the supposed smoking guns in Hoffman’s “expose.” A Snohomish County Health District official wrote in an email in July, a few days after the KUOW story cited above and months after the first public release of the breakthrough statistics: “We are being clear in our conversation that we do expect people who are vaccinated to become infected with COVID. As our population is more vaccinated – we anticipate seeing more, given that more people are vaccinated AND that the vaccine is not 100% effective.”

This aligns precisely with what the public understanding about breakthroughs had been, at least the one based on the public pronouncements of health officials.

Furthermore, at the news conference where Inslee announced his mandates, state health secretary Dr. Umair Shah, who had been making public comments about breakthrough cases for months, said 94% of infections at the time were among the unvaccinated.

In other words, 6% were not.

Also at the news conference, Inslee referred to unvaccinated people as “bioreactor facilities” spreading the disease. This upset the bioreactor facilities greatly. Well, boo-hoo. The anti-vaxxer movement helped promote a politicized recklessness that cost lives: Until recently, large majorities of those who died from the disease were unvaccinated.

That changed as the proportion of Americans who’ve been vaccinated has risen, the effects of the initial shot waned, insidious new variants emerged and booster uptake lagged.

But that was not the case in summer 2021 on the doorstep of the omicron surge. Whatever you think about the mandate, the story of the state keeping a dastardly secret about breakthrough cases in order to force shots upon people is belied by the sharp, pointed facts.

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