‘Breakthrough' Victim Whose Dad Died of COVID Hopes Story Motivates San Diegans to Get Vaccinated

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More than 7,000 San Diegans just missed their second COVID vaccine appointment, nudging the number of half-vaccinated people in San Diego County to nearly 150,000.

Despite having had both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, a 37-year-old San Diego woman still got the virus. However, she credits the vaccine with helping to keep her alive and hopes her story changes minds.

Erica Castillo grabbed dinner downtown with a friend over the 4th of July weekend. Days later, she tested positive for COVID-19, even though she was fully vaccinated

“I was cautiously optimistic that if I was there for just an hour or two, that I would be OK,” Erica Castillo said. “And turns out I was wrong.”

NBC 7's Omari Fleming details the deadly case, and spoke to another "breakthrough" COVID-19 patient.

Castillo has asthma, so she is technically considered high-risk. She is very active, fit and healthy, though, so she was stunned at how hard the virus hit her body.

“It was getting very scary,” Castillo said. “I was shocked at how severe my symptoms were. I wasn’t able to sleep for about a week straight because I was coughing uncontrollably. I wasn’t able to breathe. I honestly probably should have gone to the hospital, but I was very scared.”

"We expect a vaccine to be 100%,” said Dr. Francesca Torriani, a UC San Diego hospital epidemiologist.

Torriani said there are still many questions surrounding breakthrough cases and that it's important to keep in mind that stories like Castillo's are rare.

"Coverage from getting infected is not 100% for everybody,” Torriani said. “So the difficulty is threading that needle."

As of July 13, breakthrough cases comprise just over 1% of all new COVID cases in San Diego County. Still, critics of the vaccine have pointed to breakthrough cases as evidence the vaccine is ineffective.

“My message to people who are not vaccinated is, Have you gotten to know the stories of the people who have passed away?” Castillo said.

Her father, Dr. Thomas Castillo, was a frontline healthcare worker who tested positive for COVID.

“My father never got sick,” Castillo said. “Never got sick. He was always the person at the hospital that would pick up other people’s shifts, to the point where he would miss a lot of holidays so he could cover for people. He really prided himself on that. He was the strongest, healthiest person I knew.”

Castillo's father was asymptomatic at the time of his positive test, but months later he died from COVID long-hauler complications. He would have been 70 years old this year. He died just one month shy of his retirement.

“It was the most traumatic thing to see him go through what he went through every single day,” Castillo said. “Talking to his doctors and no one knew what to do at that point because it was so early in the pandemic. If he had gotten sick now, he would have been vaccinated, we would be having a different story.”

Castillo believes if it were not for the vaccine and for a monoclonal antibody treatment she receive this past weekend, she would be in a hospital right now – not at home.

“I am so glad that I was able to get the vaccine because I’m able to talk to you right now from my home and not from a hospital bed,” Castillo said. “I know for sure that if I wasn’t vaccinated, it would have been much worse.”

From now on, Castillo said, she plans to mask up whenever indoors and plans to avoid crowded areas alltogether.

As of July 13, San Diego County has 1,139 reported breakthrough COVID cases. Fifteen people have been hospitalized, and four fully vaccinated San Diegans have died from COVID.

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