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COVID tracker: Immunity isn’t a magic shield, and that includes ‘natural’ immunity

  • NH DHHS—courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 10/17/2021 8:00:09 PM

In the innocent days before COVID-19, I had a simple mental image of disease immunity.

After I recovered from a contagious disease or got a vaccine to prevent it, I imagined myself carrying a magic shield labeled “immunity” for the rest of my life that deflected all attempts by the virus/bacteria/whatever to infiltrate my body.

It didn’t work with influenza because that clever pathogen re-invents itself annually to sneak past the shield but it was fine for everything else, like measles. Their pathogens are dumb so my magic shield from childhood still works.

This all-or-nothing, one-and-done idea is comforting in its simplicity and commonly held. But the pandemic has shown that it’s misleading – biology is never simple – and contributes to our COVID confusion.

Consider “natural immunity,” the term for having antibodies against a disease after being sick with it. This sounds charming and easy, as if we’re doing disease the way Mother Nature intended: Get sick once and then you’re all set.

But a recent study from researchers at Yale and UNC-Charlotte said that post-infection immunity (a much better term than “natural”) will start to fade in as early as three months. Avoid vaccination and your shield could be pretty temporary.

The results are based on infection and immunological data from viral relatives of SARS-CoV2 so it’s not absolute, but since the disease has been around less than two years it would be silly to demand long-term, large-scale epidemiological data. Acting on findings as we develop them over time is the sensible way to go, and I like to think I’m sensible.

Similarly, it’s not yet known how long vaccine-caused immunity will last, which is why there’s no good answer about the need for boosters. There’s also research into whether vaccines can help protect you even after you’ve gotten sick with COVID-19, and whether any kind of mix-and-match of vaccines can provide better, longer or different protection.

It’s all very complicated, which explains why simple-minded mental images can lead us astray.

How are we doing on vaccinations? No obvious improvement.

A recent discussion on the online group Reddit concerned a chart of vaccination data among states that showed New Hampshire, unlike everybody else in New England, is no longer among the top 10. The comments were painful, including: “New Hampshire is the Texas of the north.”

An exaggeration, of course (if nothing else, our weather is vastly superior), but it does reflect how the state’s official vaccination rate has stagnated at less than 60%.

What’s the trend on the spread and impact of the disease? Not improving, certainly, but no clear pattern.

The number of new cases just keeps going higher: The two-week average has increased by a full 25% in the past month, from 403 to 511 through Thursday. It hasn’t been that high since February.

However, total hospitalizations have been flat for six weeks at about 140 and the death rate has hovered just above two a day since mid-September.

It seems the Delta variant is getting more people sick, but not getting more people seriously sick. I have no idea whether that reflects a change in how COVID-19 affects us or is a delay in its effect percolating through the population.

For coronavirus-related information and updates throughout the week, visit concordmonitor.com/coronavirus.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)
David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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