A doctor in Alabama went viral recently for a Facebook post in which she described the pain it caused her to have to say “I’m sorry, but it’s too late” to COVID-19 patients begging to be given the vaccine when they are already hospitalized and about to be intubated.
She went on to say that she tells the families of unvaccinated people who are dying of COVID-19 that the best way to honor their memories is to get vaccinated themselves.
When does it become too late to be vaccinated? There isn’t a simple answer.
Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor of medicine at Duke University, said getting exposed to COVID-19 too soon after getting vaccinated can still make you sick. But getting vaccinated after having COVID-19 actually has additional benefits.
Why can’t I wait until I have COVID-19 to get the vaccine?
The COVID-19 vaccine, like other vaccines, can take 10 to 14 days to be fully effective.
“So we’ve been seeing a lot of people who have known they’ve been exposed and then gone and got a vaccine, then been a bit disappointed when they still end up getting sick,” Wolfe said. “It’s because they simply haven’t had enough time for the vaccine to work.”
Wolfe said if you get the vaccine today and are exposed to COVID-19 tomorrow, you are not protected.
“We see the same with flu shots and a multitude of other vaccines,” Wolfe said. “It’s simply about the time that it takes you to build a robust response.”
While one point of a vaccine is to prevent people from getting severe illnesses, Wolfe said vaccines also lower the chances of passing along illnesses to someone else. If someone is exposed before the vaccine is fully effective, not only can they get infected, but they’re also still at risk of passing it on.
Should I get vaccinated if I’ve already had COVID-19?
Yes, Wolfe said, for three main reasons.
When someone gets an illness such as COVID-19, their body produces antibodies — proteins that counteract the foreign particles infecting the body. If the person is exposed to the same illness again, these antibodies will be able to recognize the viral particles and inactivate them before the person gets sick from the same illness again.
However, Wolfe said, not everyone makes antibodies — in fact, “it is unpredictable as to who makes a reasonable [immune] defense.”
Data show that people who get through COVID-19 with only relatively mild symptoms generally make weaker antibodies. Since they’ve been able to clear the virus so quickly, they don’t make a very good defense when they see the virus again, Wolfe said.
“It’s not true that simply having infection guarantees that you’ve made a good immune defense,” Wolfe said.
The second issue is that antibodies wane over time. The longer since someone has been infected with COVID-19, the more diminished the benefit of immunity, according to Wolfe.
Variants present a third argument for getting vaccinated after having COVID-19.
“Just because you saw the original variation of coronavirus last year does not mean that gives you the same degree of protection against the variants,” Wolfe said. “And in fact, we have good data that suggests that the vaccines are better at protecting against an array of variants.”
In general, a person who’s had COVID-19 “will have some memory of having seen it before,” Wolfe said. “But I cannot sit in front of that person and tell them with any assurity that that protection is long-lasting, or that for them, it’s complete.”
Wolfe said people who get vaccinated after they’ve already had COVID-19 have “an even stronger immune system response than what you and I may have if we’ve never had it before.”