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Tucson opinion: Let natural immunity serve as proof of vaccination
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Tucson Opinion

Tucson opinion: Let natural immunity serve as proof of vaccination

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The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

In case you haven’t noticed, people are dog tired of #pandemiclife. It was one thing to be locked down for a few months in March of 2020, a communal effort to save the elderly and protect hospitals from implosion. The vast majority of people took the sacrifice in stride.

But we just passed the 18-month mark of living with COVID-19, and people are done. D.O.N.E.

In the beginning, the hope was once we reached herd immunity, we’d return to normal. But it’s become rather obvious there are too many people with too much hesitation about a too-new vaccine to reach herd immunity via vaccination alone anytime soon.

But you know what might get us there? Letting proof of immunity through COVID infection serve as equal to that of vaccination. This would increase trust in public health officials and, thus, vaccination rates. Other countries are already doing this with success.

In most of the European Union, digital COVID certificates have launched. These passes offer “digital proof that a person has either been vaccinated against COVID-19, received a negative test result or recovered from COVID-19,” according to the European Commission website. The pass is required to do just about everything, such as go to work, gyms, restaurants, bars or even attend large private gatherings.

The acceptance of prior infection isn’t a get-out-of-vaccination-forever pass because said recovery has to have been in the past six months. But it gives COVID survivors breathing room to consider vaccination while they participate in public life. Additionally, these countries consider full vaccination to be just one dose of a two-dose regime for survivors.

Both approaches — one fewer shot and a chance at “living free” via natural immunity for some time — is the carrot needed to balance that stick we’ve been waving around.

A recent Israeli study, which only examined the delta variant and is not yet peer-reviewed, compared 46,035 Israelis who had contracted COVID by February of this year to an equal number of people who’d been double-vaccinated by that time.

The study charted infections, symptoms and hospitalizations between June 1 and Aug. 14. It found that people who’d survived the virus were “much less likely than never-infected, vaccinated people to get delta, develop symptoms from it or become hospitalized with serious COVID-19,” according to the August write-up in the journal Science. In the two groups, there were 748 breakthrough cases, only 108 of them in patients who’d previously had COVID. The remaining 640 were in the vaccinated group.

(Israeli immunologists said Israelis should still get vaccinated, and explicitly discouraged people from trying to get native immunity because COVID is unpredictably dangerous.)

Marty Makary, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote in the Washington Post last month that more than 15 studies “have demonstrated clearly” that native immunity is at least as good as the vaccine.

One from The Cleveland Clinic, published in June, examined more than 52,000 health-care workers, who are exposed frequently to the virus through work. Researchers followed workers over a five-month period and compared four groups: previously COVID-infected and unvaccinated, previously infected and vaccinated, previously uninfected and vaccinated and previously uninfected and unvaccinated.

The study showed the uninfected and unvaccinated group had high rates of infection over those five months, but all the other groups had “nearly zero infection.” This shows clearly that both vaccination and natural immunity work.

Makary argued that the unwillingness of his public health colleagues to accept native immunity as effective decreases public confidence in health leaders, which does nothing to increase vaccination rates.

I agree. Right now, many unvaccinated persons feel like they’re being gaslit by public officials who claim to “follow the science” but seem to ignore data on native immunity. (“Natural immunity? Never heard of it!”).

I recognize health officials are concerned that if they admit natural immunity works, people will completely abandon vaccination. That’s a risk.

But the greater risk is the growing lack of trust in those officials. Every time one says, “Well, we don’t know that much about natural immunity” another person on the vaccine fence steps onto the anti-vax side.

Deputy Pima County Administrator and Chief Medical Officer Francisco Garcia agrees native immunity is vital, but says it isn’t that simple.

“Native immunity is really important and powerful, but right now the main problem with antibody testing is there isn’t one assay or one antibody threshold that all the scientists agree on that says you’re fully protected,” Garcia said. “It would be irresponsible for us to say, ‘Yeah, you’ve got some antibodies floating around and let’s cross our fingers and hopefully you’re going to be OK.’ I think we’ll get there in the future, but we’re not there yet.”

Maybe not. But we’re darn close, and the longer we dilly-dally on accepting natural immunity as protective, the greater the risk the vaccine-hesitant become the Never Vaccinate. If the EU countries can discern a way to get on the same page about natural immunity, we can too. The question is, will we?

Renée Schafer Horton is a regular Sunday contributor. Reach her at And please go get vaccinated.

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