Do I Need a Vaccine if I Already Had COVID-19?
Pediatric Infectious Diseases Expert, Mary Suzanne Whitworth, M.D., Answers this Common Question
One of the most common questions our experts hear is, “Why do I need to get the COVID-19 vaccine if I’ve already had COVID?”
It’s a good question and one that Mary Suzanne Whitworth, M.D., medical director of Infectious Diseases at Cook Children’s understands.
“It can be confusing because there are viruses that you can catch that trigger long-term immunity,” she said. “However, COVID-19 is not one of them.”
She explains it this way – COVID-19 is in the coronavirus family. We all get a coronavirus each year and it usually feels like a cold. Even though we catch a coronavirus, our immunity is temporary so we may catch it again the next year, and the year after that. COVID-19 is the same. Even though you’ve had it once doesn’t mean you won’t catch it again.
“It’s very different from, say, the measles where you probably won’t catch the measles twice in your lifetime. Coronaviruses are different,” said Dr. Whitworth.
So what about the COVID-19 vaccine? We don’t know how long immunity lasts with it either, but Dr. Whitworth says it does appear to provide protection for a longer period of time than getting COVID-19. She points to this study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that examined two outbreaks at a nursing home in Kentucky. The first outbreak in July sickened 20 residents and killed five. Three months later in October, another outbreak hit the same nursing home. There were 12 residents who tested positive the first time who were still living at the facility. Five tested positive again.
“Three of those five had no symptoms during the first outbreak. This means those three were made worse by the second infection,” said Dr. Whitworth. “So, we know our immunity wears off after getting the virus.”
Another CDC study released in June shows people who had COVID-19, but didn’t get very sick, likely didn’t build up a strong antibody response, likely making them more susceptible to catching it again.
“The good news about this study is that it shows if you had COVID-19 and you got the vaccine, your protective antibodies will be even higher than someone who only got the vaccine,” she said. “The bottom line is that a lot of people who get COVID disease, but aren’t very sick, do not develop very good antibodies.”
Still, she knows a lot of people are worried about the potential side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. It is a new vaccine, but scientists have been following the data and risks for seven months now. At this point, more than 155 million people in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated. That’s a lot of people. However, no vaccine is 100% effective. According to the CDC, 4,115 vaccinated people have been hospitalized or died with COVID-19 as of June 21. Of those “breakthrough infections,” 750 were asymptomatic.
“About 20% of the deaths in this group were not related to COVID-19. They were car wrecks, heart attacks, other things that people died from,” said Dr. Whitworth. “All of this is to say, it’s incredible how safe and effective this vaccine is. There’s not another one on earth like it. It’s as good of a vaccine as there has ever been.”
Recent reports about myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, in young people have raised new concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine. Since April, there have been more than 1,000 reports of myocarditis in people who received one of the two COVID-19 mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna).
The CDC reports:
- Confirmed cases have occurred:
- Mostly in male adolescents and young adults age 16 years or older
- More often after getting the second dose than after the first dose of one of these two mRNA COVID-19 vaccines
- Typically within several days after COVID-19 vaccination
- Patients can usually return to their normal daily activities after their symptoms improve. They should speak with their doctor about return to exercise or sports.
- CDC continues to recommend COVID-19 vaccination for everyone 12 years of age and older, given the risk of COVID-19 illness and related, possibly severe complications.
While this can sound scary, especially for parents trying to make the right decision for their child, Dr. Whitworth shares this:
- The number of vaccinated people who have contracted myocarditis is about one in 10,000 to 50,000.
- The NCAA tracked rates of myocarditis among its athletes who contracted COVID-19 before the vaccine was available. Thirty-seven, or 2.3%, of 1,597 Big Ten college athletes were found to have myocarditis through regular EKGs and MRIs.
- The risk of myocarditis from contracting COVID-19 infection is much higher than from the vaccine.
She adds that, like other coronaviruses, COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. She fully expects to see it circulating for years to come, making it even more important to get vaccinated. And if you think it’s easy to be the bearer of bad news day after day, it’s not. She’s going on 17 months of advising us about preventing COVID-19.
“It’s a lot of pressure sharing these opinions all the time, but I’m not scared of telling people to get the vaccine. I saw so much heartbreak watching the adult hospitals in Fort Worth have to call in morgue trucks because they ran out of places to keep the bodies. And we’ve held a lot of scared families’ hands here whose children required ICU care,” she said. “I got the Pfizer vaccine the week after it received emergency use authorization. My adult children got vaccinated. My parents were vaccinated. I firmly believe that it’s safe and it’s our best protection.”
Have COVID-19 vaccine questions? You are not alone. We know that you have many questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, especially now that it's approved for children ages 12-15, and we want to do our best to answer your questions with what we know so far. Visit our website to learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine.
About the vaccine: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently authorized the emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines developed by the drug companies Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer-BioNTech. This means that the vaccines can be offered to individuals in the midst of the current public health emergency even though drug trials are ongoing.