At least three San Diego County residents have died of COVID-19 after being vaccinated, according to county officials and medical examiner records.

The county announced earlier this month the death of a fully vaccinated woman. She was 70 and died in March after being hospitalized. At the time it was considered the first such death, but medical examiner records obtained by inewsource show a 73-year-old vaccinated man at the county-run Edgemoor Hospital in Santee died of COVID-19 on Feb. 2.

Why this matters

Contracting COVID-19 after being vaccinated against the virus is rare. It’s happened to about 600 San Diego County residents out of 1.84 million who are fully vaccinated. Public health officials say not getting vaccinated poses the greatest risk to becoming infected or dying from the virus.

This week county spokesperson Michael Workman confirmed another case, this one involving a 69-year-old vaccinated man who died June 14. 

Two of the people were fully vaccinated, and one died eight days after receiving the second dose but before the end of the waiting period. All three had underlying medical conditions. 

The cases are unusual and extremely rare. 

“It’s the same risk as being struck by a meteor and dying,” said Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at UC San Francisco. 

As of June 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 750 deaths of fully vaccinated people in the U.S. These are commonly called “breakthrough” cases. In San Diego County, among fully vaccinated people, just 0.0001% have died, Workman said.

Chin-Hong encouraged people not to be afraid to get vaccinated, saying it benefits even those who’ve already had the virus.

An Associated Press analysis this week of government data found that nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are among the unvaccinated. According to the report, national death numbers are now below 300 a day compared to a peak of more than 3,400 a day on average in mid-January, shortly after vaccines became widely available. 

Robin Osborne is the sister of the vaccinated man who died in February. She said her brother Jeffrey Schmidt died after he had received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Since 2008, Schmidt had lived at Edgemoor, a 192-bed skilled nursing facility. He had Huntington’s disease, which kills healthy nerve cells in the brain. His sister said he had been unable to walk or speak for several years. 

A day after Schmidt received his first Pfizer dose, he tested positive for the coronavirus during a routine test and was moved to a COVID-19 unit at the hospital.

“I kind of got that it was like a roller coaster. There were good days. There would be not so good days,” Osborne said of her calls with the Edgemoor staff. 

After about two weeks of breathing challenges and on-and-off fevers, he tested negative and was moved out of the COVID-19 unit to another room, Osborne said.

A few days later, she received a phone call requesting her permission, because she had her brother’s power of attorney, to administer the second dose of the vaccine. She approved it.

That would be one of her last conversations with Edgemoor staff before Schmidt died on Feb. 2 – eight days after he had received the second vaccination. 

Christine Thorne, a UC San Diego physician who is board certified in general preventive medicine and public health, said the timing of Schmidt’s second dose is what she would expect.

“Once we clear a patient from isolation, they’re actually eligible to receive either the first or second dose of a vaccine for COVID,” she said, if appropriate guidelines for the vaccine intervals are followed.

Schmidt’s death came during the initial rush this year to vaccinate, Thorne said. Unfortunately many people got sick around the time they became eligible, she said, especially those who were at high risk.

Schmidt was among four Edgemoor patients who died of COVID-19. Two died in 2020, and one man – who had been under county care at Edgemoor since 2002 – died a few weeks before Schmidt. All were over 60. 

Edgemoor Administrator Erin Chancler declined an interview request about Schmidt’s case. 

Osborne described the care her brother received at Edgemoor over the years as excellent, but the timing of his death came as a surprise.

“In my mind, I was thinking he’s doing better,” she said. She thought the staff was feeling confident about his recovery.

Medical examiner records list his cause of death as Huntington’s disease with COVID-19 as a contributing factor. 

Communication with Edgemoor had been somewhat challenging in the final weeks of her brother’s life, she said. Osborne lives in Castro Valley in Alameda County. Unable to visit her brother during the pandemic, she relied on hospital staff for updates. 

During January, she said, the staff was busy and the hospital had just a single phone line to call into for information about patients. Some of the staff also had cellphones to talk with those seeking information about family members, she said.

In all, 33 patients and 99 healthcare workers at Edgemoor have contracted the virus during the pandemic, according to state public health data.

During the Vietnam War, Schmidt served in the Marines, and he later graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He is survived by a son, Cassidy Schmidt of Healdsburg.

Osborne said her brother spent much of his life crafting jewelry, pottery and glassware. She remembers him as a free spirit and believes he’s in a better place now, free from the disease that robbed him of his motor skills.

“I was sad, but I was happy in the sense that it was a blessing for Jeffrey to pass on and to be released from a body that had literally held him prisoner,” she said. She recalled telling him she was all right and it was OK to go. “Your spirit, your soul, your presence will always be everywhere.”

inewsource reporter Kate Sequeira contributed to this report.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Mary Plummer is a former investigative reporter for inewsource who is now the newsroom’s audience engagement editor. She’s been a reporter, editor, radio producer and broadcast coach in Southern California for more than a decade. Her reporting has ranged from major breaking news, such as covering...