TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Republicans fighting President Joe Biden’s coronavirus vaccine mandates use a new weapon against White House rules: natural immunity.
They claim that people who have recovered from the virus have enough immunity and antibodies to not need COVID-19 vaccines, and the concept has been invoked by Republicans as a kind of stand-in for vaccines.
Florida wrote natural immunity into state law this week as GOP lawmakers elsewhere push for similar measures to circumvent vaccine mandates. Mandate lawsuits have also begun to lean on the idea. Conservative federal lawmakers have asked regulators to consider this when formulating mandates.
Researchers recognize that individuals previously infected with COVID-19 have some degree of immunity, but that vaccines provide a more uniform level of protection. Natural immunity is also far from a uniform scenario, making it complicated to introduce comprehensive exemptions for vaccines.
This is because how much immunity COVID-19 survivors have depends on how long ago they were infected, how sick they were, and whether the virus variant they had is different from mutants circulating now. For example, a person who had a minor case a year ago is very different from a person who had a serious case over the summer when the delta variant raged through the country. It is also difficult to reliably test whether someone is protected against future infections.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in August that COVID-19 survivors who ignored advice to be vaccinated had more than twice the risk of becoming infected again. A recent study by the CDC, which looked at data from nearly 190 hospitals in nine states, found that unvaccinated people who had been infected months earlier were five times more likely to get COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people who had not a previous infection.
“Infection with this virus, if you survive, you have some degree of protection against becoming infected in the future and especially against becoming seriously infected in the future,” said Dr. David Dowdy of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “However, it is important to note that even those who have been infected in the past receive additional protection from being vaccinated.”
Studies also show that COVID-19 survivors who are vaccinated develop extra strong protection, what is called “hybrid immunity”. When a previously infected person receives a coronavirus vaccine, the shot acts as a booster and brings antiviral antibodies to high levels. The combination also strengthens another defensive layer of the immune system, helping to create new antibodies that are more likely to resist future variants.
The immunity debate comes as the country experiences a further increase in infections and hospitalizations, and 60 million people remain unvaccinated in a pandemic that has killed more than 770,000 Americans. Biden hopes more people will be vaccinated due to workplace mandates, which are due to take effect early next year but which face many challenges in the courts.
And many Republicans eager to oppose Biden have embraced the argument that immunity to past infections should be enough to achieve an exemption from mandates.
“We recognize, contrary to what you see going on with the federal proposed mandates and other states, that we are actually taking a science-based approach. For example, we recognize people who have natural immunity,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has been a main critic of the virus rules, at a signing ceremony to sweep legislation to curb vaccine mandates this week.
The new Florida law forces private companies to allow workers to opt out of COVID-19 mandates if they can prove immunity through a prior infection, as well as exceptions based on medical reasons, religious beliefs, regular testing, or an agreement to wear protective gear. The state health department, which is headed by general surgeon Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who opposes mandates and has drawn national attention over a refusal to wear a face mask during a meeting, will have the authority to define exception standards.
The Republican-led New Hampshire Legislative Assembly plans to take a similar measure when it meets in January. Lawmakers in Idaho and Wyoming, both state houses below GOP control, recently discussed similar measures but did not pass them. In Utah, a recently signed law giving exemptions from Biden’s vaccine mandates for private employers allows people to waive the requirement if they have already had COVID.
And the debate is not unique to the United States. Russia has seen a large number of people who have sought antibody tests to prove that they had a previous infection and therefore do not need vaccines.
Some politicians use the science behind natural immunity to advance rumors that vaccines are not the best way to end the pandemic.
“The shot is by no means the only or proven way out of the pandemic. I am not willing to give blind faith to the pharmaceutical narrative,” said Idaho Republican Rep. Greg Ferch.
U.S. Senator Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican and physician, along with 14 other GOP doctors, dentists and pharmacists in Congress sent a letter in late September to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urging the agency when they establish vaccination policies, to consider natural immunity.
The White House has recently uncovered a host of vaccine mandates, leading to a barrage of lawsuits from GOP states that set the stage for legal battles. Among the rules are vaccine requirements for federal contractors, companies with more than 100 employees and healthcare professionals.
In separate lawsuits, others challenge local vaccine rules using an immune system.
A 19-year-old student who refuses to be tested but claims he got and quickly recovered from COVID-19 is suing the University of Nevada, Reno, the governor and others for the state’s requirement that everyone, with few exceptions, show proof of vaccination to enroll in the classes in the coming spring semester. The case claims that “COVID-19 vaccination mandates are unconstitutional interference with normal immunity and bodily integrity.”
Another case, filed by workers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, challenges their workplace vaccine mandate for civil rights and constitutional violations, claiming that the laboratory has denied requests for medical accommodation for those workers who have fully recovered from COVID-19.
A similar lawsuit from Chicago firefighters and other city employees hit a snag last month when a judge said their case lacked scientific evidence to support the claim that the natural immunity of people who have had the virus is better than the protection against the vaccine.
For more information, visit the Washington Times COVID-19 Resource Page.
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