Natural immunity is not a good alternative to a COVID-19 vaccine

Numerous uncertainties and conflicting information continue to circulate around COVID-19 immunity. Aspirus Health providers frequently receive questions about natural immunity compared to immunity created through vaccination. 

Immunity is the body’s ability to protect an individual from getting sick when exposed to an infectious agent such as a bacterium, virus, parasite or fungus. 

“You have two basic ways to become immune to something,” says Aspirus Hospitalist Dr. Adam Clements. “You can acquire natural immunity by becoming infected with something. Or there’s acquired immunity that comes from the placenta from the mother, breast milk, antibody infusion or from a vaccine.”

Dr. Clements has been a Hospitalist for six years and treating COVID-19 patients at Aspirus Wausau Hospital (AWH) since the pandemic hit our community. 

“Our group has taken care of probably the largest number of COVID patients with the help of our ICU colleagues. So, people who are sick enough to be admitted who are not on a ventilator are taken care of by us,” says Dr. Clements. “Being unvaccinated is number one, two and three on the list of risk factors.”

One of the biggest reasons patients at Aspirus cite for not being vaccinated is their belief in natural immunity. 

“Natural immunity is great for mono. People don’t die from mononucleosis, the immunity lasts a long time, but it’s not good for influenza. It mutates too fast… it’s not good for HIV because once you’ve got it, you’ve got it,” Dr. Clements said. “Which one is better really depends on the illness. For COVID, natural immunity is not an effective or wise strategy.” 

Natural immunity from COVID-19 can be spotty. A recent CDC study found that 36% of COVID-19 cases didn’t result in development of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies

Additionally, natural immunity fades quicker than immunity from a COVID-19 vaccine.

Real-world studies indicate natural immunity's short life. For example, 65 percent of people who start with a lower antibody baseline from infection completely lost their COVID-19 antibodies within 60 days.

The most recent COVID-19 news has focused on the omicron variant. New data show that the omicron variant is now considered the most dominant version of the coronavirus – making up 73 percent of new COVID-19 infections last week in the U.S. 

“Omicron has a lot of mutations in the spike protein. And Omicron actually arose in South Africa or perhaps in other places in the setting of natural immunity,” Dr. Clements said. “It’s already demonstrated its ability to evade that. It’s here. Natural immunity doesn’t work. And it’s dangerous.”

There are still a lot of unknowns about the omicron variant, but health officials do know that it spreads very fast.

Getting COVID-19 is very risky and can result in long-term disease, lasting organ damage, hospitalization or even death. Even if your own infection is mild, you can spread it to others who may be at risk for severe illness and death. The authorized and approved vaccines are safe and highly effective against severe illness or death due to COVID.

“I have never seen anyone die from a vaccine-related complication,” Dr. Clements said. “I see people die of COVID every single day at this hospital.”

COVID-19 vaccinations are available through Aspirus Health and numerous pharmacies in our communities. Boosters or initial vaccination series can be scheduled through Aspirus using the MyAspirus online patient portal or mobile app. Appointments are also available by calling the Aspirus COVID-19 Call Center at 844-568-0701 or 715-843-1454. The Call Center has been experiencing high call volumes, so community members are encouraged to use MyAspirus for convenience.