The first person to die from the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the U.S. had already been infected with COVID in the past, further discrediting “natural immunity” claims made by conservative politicians who oppose mask and vaccine mandates.
The patient who died was a man between the ages of 50 and 60 who had previously been infected with COVID-19. Health officials described him as being “at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19 due to his unvaccinated status and underlying health conditions.” The death occurred in Harris County, Texas.
“We urge all residents who qualify to get vaccinated and get their booster shot if they have not already,” Harris County Public Health Director Barbie Robinson said.
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Although COVID reinfections are generally viewed as rare, they do happen. Identifying coronavirus reinfection rates across the U.S. has been challenging for researchers due to limited resources, meaning that current estimations are likely an undercount. However, individual states have identified hundreds of instances of reinfection.
A study that was published last week from the Imperial College of London demonstrated that the Omicron variant has a higher reinfection rate than previous strains of the virus — in fact, the risk of getting reinfected by Omicron is 5.4 times higher than the risk of getting reinfected by the Delta variant.
Researchers in the study also noted that there’s no evidence that Omicron is any less severe than previous variants, despite several media reports claiming otherwise.
These findings further discredit the “natural immunity” strategy that has been pushed by several Republican lawmakers. In order to sidestep vaccine mandates for workers, including those in the health care industry, some Republican politicians have suggested that prior COVID-19 diagnoses should be considered equivalent to being vaccinated when it comes to protection against the virus.
Last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida) signed a law stipulating that proof of a previous coronavirus diagnosis was enough to satisfy federal rules on vaccines, erroneously claiming that recognizing “natural immunity” was a “science-based approach.” At least two other states — West Virginia and Arkansas — have passed similar laws.
But evidence suggests that this is a dangerous strategy. Although individuals that were previously infected with COVID generally have some level of immunity against the virus, these levels of immunity are not consistent compared to the protection that comes from vaccines. Immunity from previous coronavirus infections wears off over time, meaning that even if someone already contracted the virus, getting vaccinated still ensures added protection.
One Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that unvaccinated adults who were previously diagnosed with the virus were five times more likely to be reinfected than those who had coronavirus and still received their Moderna or Pfizer shots. Because the Omicron variant comes with a higher likelihood of reinfection, health experts are recommending that everyone get vaccinated and boosted — even those who have already had coronavirus.
“This is not like getting measles back in March. If you had measles back in March, you’re probably going to be immune now, but that’s not the true thing for COVID-19,” said Peter Marks, head of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.