“We’re in this for the long haul,” doctors discuss booster shots, reinfections and natural immunity

Published: Aug. 28, 2021 at 7:11 AM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Alabama remains in unchartered territory. Friday, Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris issued a somber update about the spread of COVID-19 in Alabama, reporting the state has negative 40 ICU beds and more than 5,000 students tested positive for the virus this week.

Doctors warn the virus is here to stay. They offered the following guidance on how to remain healthy in the months to come.

Third dose, booster shot

Despite the sweeping Delta variant, research shows the current vaccines are protecting patients from serious illness, hospitalization and death. But at some point that immunity will wane.

A booster dose is expected to be approved in mid-September for both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Doctors say the timing of this booster shot is important.

“The immunity [for those who are fully vaccinated] will last up to twelve months,” stated Dr. Michael Saag with UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases. “By getting a booster at eight months you stay ahead of the curve. If we waited for twelve months and recommend the booster, the immunity against strains like the Delta Variant would be somewhat limited.”

If approved, the public will be encouraged to get a Pfizer or Moderna booster eight months after the date of their second vaccine. Johnson & Johnson’s booster will likely be on a shorter timeline.

“It looks like they are going to have a booster at six months,” added Dr. Scott Harris.

Doctors discourage rushing to get a booster.

“You shouldn’t get a boost before [eight months after the second dose,” added Dr. Paul Goepfert, also with UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases. “The immune system is interesting, it likes to have a rest between doses. It will be very important to listen to the ACIP and the recommendations and not jump the gun and get a boost too early.”

A third dose is currently approved by the CDC for those with compromised immune systems. Over the last two weeks, 112 people in Alabama have already taken that step.

Reinfections, Natural Immunity and Vaccines

Choosing not to get a vaccine following a COVID infection is a gamble according to most doctors who are now treating some COVID patients for the second time.

“We are seeing reinfections of people who had the original version of COVID,” explained Dr. Tate Hinkle, a Russell County family practitioner. “We are seeing them now infected with Delta and they are as sick if not sicker than before.”

The vast majority are unvaccinated. Natural immunity from the virus can last up to 3 months. For most, a vaccine provides around 12 months of protection from serious illness, hospitalizations and death.

“You have natural protection from the virus, then the vaccine is higher protection - if you combine both on top of each other it’s significantly higher than either by itself”, Hinkle added.

Those with breakthrough infections are rarely hospitalized or die from COVID, compared to those who are unvaccinated.

“A recent CDC study looked at people in Kentucky who’d been previously infected and what happened to them if they got vaccinated or not,” Harris explained. “It found they were three or four times more likely to be re-infected if they weren’t vaccinated, even if they been previously infected.”

Those who’ve had COVID can get a vaccine as soon as they’re well or no longer have symptoms or a fever.

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