CLEVELAND, Ohio – People in some parts of the country are deliberately trying to capture COVID-19 to build natural immunity. Sensible or worst idea ever?
Bad idea, local health experts say emphatically, especially when safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines are available.
Even getting the milder omicron variant – the goal of so-called COVID-19 parties lately – is not the best way to gain immunity.
Getting the vaccine dramatically reduces your chance of getting COVID-19, which is so severe that it will either send you to the hospital or end your life, said Dr. David Margolius, Divisional Director of Internal Medicine at MetroHealth System.
“The vaccine is super-protective against the most frightening outcomes of COVID-19,” Margolius said.
There are several reasons why immunity to vaccination is better than failing your guard and getting a COVID-19 infection to build immunity, experts said.
People who get COVID-19 are at risk of getting long-term complications from the disease, can spread the disease to others and potentially become yet another patient in an overburdened healthcare system.
“From an infectious disease point of view, the best way is to reduce the impact of infection by preventing rather than having to treat it,” he said. Dr. Thomas File, Chairman of the Infectious Diseases Department at Summa Health. He pointed to polio and measles as examples of infectious diseases that have been controlled globally through immunizations.
Plus, even getting a mild case of COVID-19 “is still a pretty lousy way to spend five to 10 days recovering,” Margolius said.
People who deliberately expose themselves to COVID-19 act on the false assumption that COVID-19 is like chickenpox or measles, which provides lifelong immunity.
“Getting a natural infection in no way guarantees that you (will not have) another infection with COVID-19,” File said.
The idea of deliberately trying to capture the milder omicron variant is hot in Philadelphia and Chicago, according to news reports. It does not appear to have captured northeastern Ohio yet.
But the idea is reminiscent “Chicken pox parties” of the 1950s and 1960s, where parents would bring their children home to a sick child.
In 2019, health officials in New York said they had received reports of parental host “measles parties” with the aim of infecting their unvaccinated children so that they could achieve natural immunity.
Here are some common questions about natural immunity and vaccines:
Q: Some people say, “I’m young and healthy, so if I get COVID-19, it’s not going to be a big deal.” Is this accurate?
Most young, healthy people return fairly easily from COVID-19, Margolius said. “But it’s still not worth having the few weeks before you return when we know there is a safe and effective vaccine available.”
Q: Why is the protection from a vaccine better than natural immunity?
Vaccines provide protection without having to face the symptoms or the long-term consequences of having the disease in question.
Q: Which is stronger or more long-lasting – natural immunity or immunity from a vaccine?
The question is not which form of immunity is more protective, but which has the fewest side effects and symptoms. That would be vaccine, Margolius said.
In the case of infectious diseases that have vaccines, immunization is the safest way to get immunity, Margolius said. “Once the vaccines are developed, it’s the way to go.”
Many other types of infections provide greater immunity after infection, but that is not true with COVID-19, File said. “We know that if you have received the vaccine, you have a higher probability of having higher levels of antibody protection than just a natural infection,” File said.
Mild or asymptomatic infections are less likely to trigger a robust immune response, making the person less likely to be protected in the future, File said.
COVID-19 vaccine protection decreases over time, which is why boosters are recommended, File said.
Q: Can a mild case of COVID-19 still be contagious?
Although a young, healthy person with a mild case of COVID-19 can still spread it to others, File said. It can have serious consequences for immunosuppressed people.
“The fewer people who excrete the virus, the less likely they are to excrete to vulnerable people,” File said. “The fewer people who are infected, the less chance of mutations occurring and of new variants emerging.”
Q: What are some of the long-term health consequences of COVID-19?
Long-term effects of COVID-19 are more common in the elderly, but File has seen patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms experience severe fatigue, loss of taste and smell, and other symptoms three months after the first infection.
A recent study published in Nature Medicine found that U.S. veterans recovering from COVID-19 were more likely to have cardiovascular problems months later, even though their infections were mild.