COVID-19 vaccines offer benefits even to those previously infected

CLAIM: Those who have had COVID-19 have natural immunity against the disease and do not need a vaccine. No one should be vaccinated without first testing for COVID-19 antibodies.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Studies have shown that infection from COVID-19 provides short-term immunity, but that protection fades over time. In addition, natural immunity differs from person to person. Even those who have had COVID-19 can benefit from the vaccine because it boosts existing immunity.

THE FACTS: Social media users are spreading misleading information about immunity after COVID-19.

The misleading claims around natural immunity vary slightly. Some raise questions whether the vaccine will make any difference for those who have already had COVID-19, and others suggest that natural immunity is better than receiving the vaccine.

But this is not the case, according to a report Friday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report highlights a study that found those who were infected with COVID-19 but never vaccinated had a higher risk of reinfection than those who had been vaccinated. The study, conducted in Kentucky, examined residents with lab-confirmed infections in 2020.

The CDC study adds to growing laboratory evidence that people who had one bout of COVID-19 get a dramatic boost in virus-fighting immune cells — and a bonus of broader protection against new mutants — when they’re vaccinated.

At a recent White House briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, said vaccinating COVID-19 survivors offers protection from both the original virus and variants. The vaccine works by triggering the immune system’s memory of fighting the actual virus in COVID-19 survivors.

Other studies have shown that those who were previously infected with COVID-19 and received the vaccine made antibodies that could identify variants even without being exposed to the variant.

For those who have had the virus and are thinking of not getting the vaccine, experts caution that having COVID-19 does not guarantee antibodies, while the vaccines have been shown to offer protection against serious infection, hospitalization and death.

David Boulware, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota, said he generally recommends that people with prior infection receive at least one dose of vaccine.

“There is short term protection after prior infection which lasts for multiple months. The duration is variable, likely based on the severity of prior infection,” he said in an email. “A second exposure by the immune system will boost long term memory immune cells (memory B and T cells) that live for decades.”

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