Kimberly Marselas
Kimberly Marselas

Normally, my family spends Labor Day weekend at a rustic cabin in the wooded foothills of Western Maryland, nestled just between the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders.

There’s no TV, spotty (if any) cell phone coverage and very few unwelcome distractions from the lifelong friends we drive hours to see.

But for the second year in a row, COVID-19 held us back from the campfire songs, the “joy” of watching our kids muck along the creek bed and collect slimy creatures, and just simply decompressing and reconnecting.

That’s because one adult among this friend group — typically 30 or so strong, with an unreasonably high number of children in there, often all of us crowded around the same dinner table — refuses to be vaccinated.

He insists he’s already had COVID, so why bother?

It’s a common refrain among the vaccine-hesitant, and one not unreasonable on its face, given the expectation that being sick with a specific virus would deliver some protection against the same threat in the future.

But that kind of thinking makes a lot of assumptions about an individual’s personal ability to muster an immune response, how long that immunity might last, and whether the person in question even actually had COVID.

As in this entire battle against COVID, it’s what we don’t know that might kill us, or at least make us or someone we love very sick. (Of all those mucking-about kids I mentioned in our cabin scenario, most are too young to be vaccinated, and we also often have grandparents at these gatherings.)

The immunity from a prior infection works “pretty well” and may last a little longer than vaccine-induced immunity, but there’s a big “but,” according to Robert M. Wachter, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

“If you’re going to rely on it, say people are saying they don’t need to be vaccinated because they had COVID three months ago, you want to be really sure that they had it,” Wachter told LeadingAge members on a COVID-19 resource call Monday. “You want to be sure they truly had symptoms and had a test that was unambiguously positive before ascribing any strategy to prior COVID.”

Even then, Wachter said he would definitely recommend at least one COVID shot (federal guidance still calls for two) after infection. The “decay curve” is very clear, he said. That means protection wanes precipitously, and it does so without adhering to an individuals’ preferred timeline or regardless of what they’ve seen otherwise on social media.

This brings me back to my friend, who I last talked to about his hesitancy on Memorial Day weekend. We’d met up at the cabin during a relative lull in COVID cases here in the mid-Atlantic (and our family planned ahead to sleep in a tent, thanks again COVID.)

At the time, I encouraged him to get vaccinated just in case. He’d never actually been tested for COVID despite claiming he was sure he’d had it. I also asked what it would hurt to get a shot. His wife and much of his extended family had been vaccinated without side effects. 

Today, I’d arm myself with this fresh article on a kind of “superhuman immunity” afforded to those who have COVID but get a vaccine once they recover. It reports on several studies that have found people who have been sick with COVID and then received at least one shot develop an “extraordinarily powerful immune response” against SARS-CoV-2.

Even better, their antibodies have a flexibility that double-vaccinated individuals don’t produce, one that researchers at Rockefeller University say is effective against a range of variants (including delta) and may cover those yet to emerge.

What I’d tell my friend is the same I’d tell you:

If you’ve been putting off getting a vaccine because you’ve already been sick — in a nursing home, those odds could be pretty high — well, here’s your chance to become superhuman and lord it over all the rest of us vaccine recipients.

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.