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Natural immunity is real — but it’s risky, local health officials say


Some people who’ve had COVID-19 say they don’t need the vaccine because they already have “natural immunity.”

“I had COVID in February, and was tested last week, and I still have antibodies. So why in the world would I take any risk from the vaccine If I am still immune?” Amanda Coakley asked during a recent protest against vaccine mandates for New York state health care workers.

Dr. Michael Mendoza, Monroe County’s public health commissioner, agrees that immunity will occur whenever you contract any virus, but he said there are uncertainties about how long those antibodies will stick around and how effective they’ll be.

“We cannot guarantee that the immunity that you achieved from natural infection is going to be as good as or last as long as the immunity that you achieved from vaccination,” Mendoza said.

Based on a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers discovered that antibodies that are developed through natural immunity can last anywhere from six days to eight months, but Mendoza said that comes at a price.

“The other cost of natural immunity is that you have to contract the infection, and we know that not everybody will do well when they contract the infection,” Mendoza said.

Dr. Ann Falsey, an infectious disease specialist with UR Medicine, compares reliance on natural immunity to playing Russian roulette, especially if an individual experienced a mild case of the disease.

“For whatever reasons, they don't make a particularly great antibody response,” Falsey said. “Therefore, they seem to be susceptible, again, at a greater rate than people that get vaccinated.”

Falsey added that a person’s immunity can be greatly heightened if you receive the vaccine after natural exposure.

“We do know that people who've had illnesses, when they get vaccinated, they have a super response, more so than people who have not been infected and are just getting the vaccine,” Falsey said.

Falsey also acknowledged that over time immunity does wane, whether by vaccine or natural exposure, but she said unvaccinated people will become incubators for mutations and variants.

Racquel Stephen is a reporter for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY.