Fact check: CDC didn’t say COVID-19 vaccinated are ‘superspreaders’, vaccines failing

As fears of the delta variant – now accounting for more than 80% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. – spur more Americans to get vaccinated, some social media users are claiming it’s the vaccinated, not the unvaccinated, driving transmission of the highly contagious coronavirus strain.

“CDC confesses: Vaccines are failing, and the vaxxed can be superspreaders,” reads a graphic shared in a July 31 Instagram post, which attributes this “confession” to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The graphic, a screenshot of a July 29 article published on conspiracy site Natural News, claims Walensky has publicly asserted immunized individuals are superspreaders because they “now carry higher viral loads than unvaccinated people, contributing to the spread of covid.”

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But this is all nonsense.

The CDC has acknowledged infected vaccinated people can potentially spread the virus to others. But these individuals aren’t carrying more virus than the unvaccinated, according to recent data.

And the agency has never said vaccines are failing. The shots continue to be largely effective against COVID-19 variants – even the delta one – protecting those vaccinated against severe disease, hospitalization and death.

USA TODAY reached out to the Instagram user and Natural News for comment.

Both vaccinated and unvaccinated can spread the virus
The Natural News article distorts the intention behind the CDC’s July 27 revision of its May mask guidance for vaccinated people, announced amid new data on the fast-growing spread of the delta variant.

Preliminary findings released by the agency on July 30 showed that in a COVID-19 outbreak tied to large July Fourth festivities in Provincetown, Massachusetts, fully vaccinated people made up nearly 75% of infections. Further genetic testing identified the delta variant in 90% of samples taken from 133 patients.

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Infected, vaccinated people were found to carry as much virus, or viral load, in their noses as unvaccinated people, but not more than the unvaccinated, as the Natural News article asserts.

These findings mirror a report out of Dane County, Wisconsin, looking at COVID-19 cases occurring in mid-July. This study also found fully vaccinated people carried similar viral loads to the unvaccinated.

Sen. Lindsey Graham announced he tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 2.
Breakthrough infections among the vaccinated aren’t unexpected – no vaccine, including the one for COVID-19, is 100% effective. This means that as vaccination rates go up, especially among already high-risk individuals like older adults, those with weakened immune systems, or with pre-existing medical conditions like heart disease or diabetes, breakthrough infections are bound to happen.

This is the dynamic in Provincetown, which has a particularly high vaccination rate. About 75% of people in the county age 12 and older are fully vaccinated, compared to the national average of 58%.

But even then, the number of breakthrough infections in the U.S. remains a relatively small fraction compared to the total population of over 164 million fully vaccinated people, and most have been asymptomatic. Recent national data tracked by the CDC shows a little over 7,000 breakthrough cases have resulted in hospitalization while 1,507 have resulted in death.

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Walensky said while the July 30 report suggests breakthrough infections with the delta variant could mean vaccinated people can spread the virus to others – although not as much as unvaccinated people – it also demonstrates vaccines are working at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death.

Out of the 469 breakthrough cases noted in the study, only seven resulted in hospitalization, and no deaths occurred. Infected people mostly suffered from mild symptoms.

Our rating: False
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim the CDC says vaccines are failing and the vaccinated can be superspreaders. A July 30 CDC analysis of the COVID-19 outbreak in Provincetown found around 75% of COVID-19 cases were among the vaccinated, but levels of viral load were similar to unvaccinated individuals. The CDC never said these individuals were superspreaders. Walensky, the CDC director, said the small scale of the outbreak, along with the few hospitalizations and no deaths, demonstrated vaccines are working against COVID-19.

Our fact-check sources:
ABC News, Aug. 3, All 50 states reporting rising vaccination rates as COVID infections surge, data shows
Natural News, July 29, CDC confesses: Vaccines are failing, the vaxxed can be super-spreaders, demands return to mask mandates for everyone, including the vaxxed
Vox, June 25, Facebook’s war against one of the internet’s worst conspiracy sites
U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, July 30, Statement from CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH on Today’s MMWR
Yale Medicine, Aug. 3, 5 Things To Know About the Delta Variant
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 28, Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People
USA TODAY, May 14, New CDC guidelines say vaccinated Americans can now ditch the masks, with a few exceptions: Live COVID-19 updates
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 30, Outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 Infections, Including COVID-19 Vaccine Breakthrough Infections, Associated with Large Public Gatherings – Barnstable County, Massachusetts, July 2021
Public Health Madison & Dane County, July 29, Dane County COVID-19 Data
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 28, COVID-19 Breakthrough Infections Reported to CDC – United States, January 1 – April 30, 2021
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Aug. 5, COVID-19 Vaccine Breakthrough Case Investigation and Reporting
Vox, Aug. 3, Breakthrough cases aren’t the cause of the US Covid-19 surge
Becker’s Hospital Review, Aug. 6, States ranked by percentage of population fully vaccinated: Aug. 6
Cape Cod Times, July 1, COVID-19 case numbers still low on Cape, Islands
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