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COVID-19 natural immunity is ‘not anywhere near as safe as vaccine-induced immunity,’ doctor says

In this article:
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Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County Chief Health Policy Advisor & Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss continuing to take pandemic precautions such as masking and social distancing, the benefits of receiving a booster shot, and the outlook on handling variants.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: I want to bring in Dr. Ben Weston now. He's Milwaukee County's chief health policy advisor and associate professor of emergency medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Dr. Weston, thanks so much for being with us. And I want to start with what you're seeing there on the ground. Because in a state-- or rather, a city like Wisconsin where just under 59% are fully vaccinated, are boosters the priority for you right now?

BEN WATSON: Yeah, thank you for having me back. Well, vaccines and boosters are the priority as well as all the other mitigation measures. Look, if you get vaccinated or boosted today, it's not going to help you tomorrow. But wearing a high quality mask is, and distancing is, and ventilation is. But this is really about the long run. COVID isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

And so getting vaccinated, getting boosted remains critical. And this new data out of the CDC shows that more than ever, particularly over 50 years old, those boosted in that age group are 44 times less likely to be hospitalized than unvaccinated. And the booster itself, just that booster addition, accounts for 17 times a decrease in hospitalization. And we see similar data in younger age groups too. So without a doubt, the booster is critical.

- Doctor, I'm wondering, what is it your biggest concern at this point in the pandemic? Is there anything that keeps you up at night? Is it, for example, the next variant that comes down the line? Is it a sense of complacency? We've seen in the UK, England is starting to relax their vaccine policies and mandates. No need to wear a mask indoors, for example. What keeps you up at night?

BEN WATSON: Well, you named all of them. I think one of the big things that is worrying right now is what's next. And we don't know what's next. But what we do know is that if we can't have vaccine equity-- local vaccine equity, of course, but global vaccine equity-- we're going to keep seeing variants. And this variant happened to be more mild.

That doesn't mean that's what the trend is going to be moving forward. Alpha wasn't more mild than the variant before it. Delta wasn't more mild than the variant before it. And so there's no reason to think the next one will be either. And so we need to increase vaccinations on a global scale, especially to our low-income countries.

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: Doctor, I'm not sure you saw this story, but it made headlines in lots of newspapers. There's a folk singer from the Czech Republic who was not vaccinated, and she died earlier this week after deliberately catching COVID. She thought that it might be a better defense to catch it and have the antibodies than to actually get vaccinated.

We saw news today coming out of the CDC that they're saying these boosters are effective in keeping people out of the hospital. But we also know that people who have recovered from COVID seem to have better protection, at least when it comes to the delta variant, in the short term. So make the case for people hearing that and thinking, is it just better to have natural antibodies? Should I not get vaccinated?

BEN WATSON: Yeah, it's a great question. So natural immunity has been challenging. And it's been challenging to understand exactly how good it is. Now, what we know, and what seems to be the case, is that natural immunity is not as durable as vaccine-induced immunity.

Now, the other thing that we know, and probably is the most important, is natural immunity-- and this folk singer-- I saw the headline on that-- is a good example of this-- natural immunity is not anywhere near as safe as vaccine-induced immunity. There's a lot of risk in getting COVID, even if you're young and healthy. Young and healthy people can get sick too, and they sure as heck can get long-term symptoms from COVID, not to mention spreading it to others in the community. We're all around vulnerable people every day, whether we know it or not.

And so vaccine-induced immunity ends up being the safest and most effective way to get your immunity. And the vaccine and the booster are critical to that. No doubt natural immunity plays a role, but the vaccine and the booster are critical.

- So Doctor, you did say young people can get sick from the virus, and many are being hospitalized as well. So where do you stand on remote learning? It's been a hot-topic button. Many people say kids need to be in school. Some say maybe it's better to have waited while this Omicron surge did its thing. Get it out of the way, and then start sending people back to in-person learning. Where do you stand on that?

BEN WATSON: Well, listen, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a parent out there who doesn't want their kid to be in school. But they want their kid to be in school safely. And I think there are ways to do that, but I think it involves layers of protection. Layers of protection means vaccinating everybody possible. Most school-age kids now can get vaccinated, so getting kids vaccinated, getting teachers vaccinated. It also means masks. And really, we're talking about higher-quality masks.

Omicron is so transmissible that-- is a cloth mask better than nothing? Of course it is. But it's not nearly as good as a paper disposable mask, and that's not nearly as good as a KN95 or N95 mask. And you can find those easily now, relatively easily, for kids that are comfortable and easy to wear. So it means vaccines. It means masks. It means distancing, and it means ventilation. And if we can put all those together, I think we can have our kids in school safely. And that's the best place for them to be if they can do it safely.

ALEXIS CHRISTOPHOROUS: All right. Dr. Ben Weston, thanks so much for being with us today.