Medical experts know that vaccines help protect people from getting COVID-19.
And they know that if someone does get COVID, being vaccinated improves the chances of having a better outcome. The antibody response the vaccines create decreases the chances a patient will end up in the hospital, slashes the odds that someone will die.
But the three approved COVID vaccines — versions from Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — aren’t the only things that provide a level of immunity. Getting COVID does, too.
Which leads to a logical question: Is there a difference in protection between vaccines and antibodies created through getting sick?
And, if a patient has already had COVID, do they still need to get vaccinated?
While the answer to the first question is a bit complicated, national and local medical experts say patients who have had COVID should still get vaccinated to increase their protection.
What’s the difference?
Health experts say the verdict is still out on what, exactly, the difference is between getting a vaccine and antibodies created by getting COVID.
Research into the topic is still in its infant stages, and early studies have not provided conclusive results.
In its recommendation for people who have had COVID to get vaccinated the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite a study done on hundreds of COVID patients in Kentucky. It showed that unvaccinated patients who previously had COVID were twice as likely to get it again than those who had COVID and were later vaccinated.
“If you have had COVID-19 before, please still get vaccinated,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in an August statement about the study. “This study shows you are twice as likely to get infected again if you are unvaccinated. Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others around you, especially as the more contagious delta variant spreads around the country.”
On the other hand, a study done in Israel showed people who had previously had COVID were more protected from the delta variant than people who had not had COVID and received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
“More information is still needed,” said Dr. Catharine Paules, an infectious diseases physician at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “It’s just a guess at this point.”
The lack of clarity is mostly due to a lack of research and data on immunity through contracting COVID. Paules said there is much more known about the vaccines.
“In terms of protection, we know a lot more about the vaccines than about infection,” she said. “We will know more later, but the science isn’t there yet.”
Dr. Debra Powell, chief of division of infectious diseases at Reading Hospital, said getting COVID produces a broader antibody response than the vaccines. But the vaccines’ more focused response, which creates a spike protein antibody, has proved very effective.
“What we have seen so far, the spike protein antibody gives the best protection,” she said.
Paules said the vaccine creates a more predictable response.
“We can really say you will be protected from serious infection in the future,” she said.
She said the response from getting COVID, on the other hand, could depend on how severe the infection was. People who have no or mild symptoms may not have as strong an antibody response as those with more serious symptoms.
And, Paules said, there may be other factors, immune system responses other than the creation of antibodies, that could play into immunity levels. Things won’t be clear until more research is done.
Layers of protection
When it comes to fighting COVID, Powell said, a single solution isn’t the answer.
“A lot of things we do are multilayered protection,” she said, noting a combination of things like vaccines and mask wearing are needed to battle the pandemic. “There’s not one quick fix to this, and the longer we let this virus mutate the harder it is to fight.”
While it is still unclear just how long immunity from vaccines or infection last, Powell said it is clear they’re not permanent. That’s the reason the topic of booster shots has recently arisen.
“Antibodies will drop over time, either way,” she said.
Powell said that every time a person is exposed to antigens, either through a vaccine or infection, they produce antibodies at higher and higher levels.
“There are increasing amplitudes every time you’re exposed again,” she said. “That’s why you get booster shots.”
Because it is unknown what level of antibodies a person needs to be protected from COVID, Powell said it only makes sense for those with previous infections to also get vaccinated.
Paules agreed, with a caveat.
She said that while she doesn’t think you can be “overprotected” by getting vaccinated, there is a question as to whether side effects of the vaccines could be harsher for those with already high antibody levels.
She said small clinical trials have not shown that, but she has heard anecdotally of people who have had COVID experiencing increased headaches and body aches. She has not heard of any increase in severe side effects.
“We’re waiting for more data,” she said.
Paules said, in light of the lack of better research, she is encouraging people who have had COVID to get at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. She said she recommends people in high-risk categories get fully vaccinated.
Powell said she is following CDC guidelines that say everyone, including those with previous infections, should get fully vaccinated.
Powell and Paules also stressed that anyone who has not already had COVID and is not vaccinated should definitely get the shot, stressing safety and effectiveness.
“You have a much higher chance of severe disease and bad outcomes without antibodies,” Powell said. “If you haven’t been vaccinated before, get it now. We still have a lot of COVID in our community right now, and the delta variant is even more contagious.”
Powell said the majority of people currently hospitalized in Reading Hospital have not been vaccinated, and more young people are being admitted.
Paules said she’s heard talk of people who are deciding not to get the vaccine and instead just waiting to get infected and develop antibodies that way. Despite all the unknowns that still exist about COVID, she said she’s sure that’s not a good idea.
“Getting infected is not better than the vaccine,” she said. “That I feel 100% sure on.”
Source: Berkshire mont