More Clarity, Please, About Vaccinations for COVID Survivors

by James A. Bacon

Since late January, when COVID-19 vaccines became available to the general public in Virginia, 99.4% of the cases, 99% of hospitalizations, and 99.3% of deaths have occurred in people who have not been vaccinated, according to the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association (VHHA).

“The scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that the COVID-19 vaccines prevent people from becoming seriously ill, requiring hospitalization, or dying from the virus, as well as spreading it to others,” states the hospital lobby organization in a statement released this morning.

VHHA now supports hospitals and health systems amending their vaccine policies to require vaccinations for employees. Acknowledging that each hospital and health system is “unique,” VHHA leaves it up to each organization to determine the appropriate time to implement a requirement.

I have no doubts about the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States. For many segments of the population (including 68-year-olds such as myself), it makes eminent sense to get vaccinated. My big question is whether it makes sense for people who have already survived the virus — at least 685,000 confirmed cases in Virginia — and who can demonstrate that they are protected by antibodies.

From what I understand, there is little question that COVID-19 survivors have antibodies which confer resistance to the virus. Sure, COVID survivors occasionally contract the virus a second time, just as happens with vaccinated people, but such instances are rare and the outcomes less dire. A bigger question is how long does the immunity last — a few months? A year? A lifetime? Not enough time has passed to have a conclusive answer. Of course, the same can be said of the vaccines.

Given the uncertainty, it seems reasonable to ask COVID survivors to take finger-prick antibody tests every so often. Antibody tests are not perfect. They give occasional false positives. But two tests approved by the FDA are good between 93% and 97% of the time, according to press reports. Next question: Is that good enough?

Let’s say a hospital employee has survived COVID and an antibody test confirms that he or she still has a level of antibodies high enough to confer the same level of resistance as a vaccination does. There is a risk, albeit a very small one, of suffering a significant side effect from the vaccination. I have yet to see a discussion in the popular press — and nothing in the VHHA press release — how either COVID survivors or society at large are any better off from getting a shot in such a case.

Perhaps that evidence exists. But it hasn’t been widely disseminated. Given the fact that we’re talking about 685,000 COVID survivors in Virginia alone, the issue is hardly esoteric.

I have no problem with the VHHA urging people to get vaccinated. Go ahead and urge away, and while you’re urging, present the data that might prove persuasive to vaccine-hesitant COVID survivors. And I’ll concede that hospitals may be within their legal rights to require vaccinations as a condition of employment. But there is a world of difference between such compulsion being legal and being ethically justifiable.