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Vaccination versus infection: Which is safer?

With most NMSU community members vaccinated, NMSU health care staff and professionals assert vaccination provides students and employees with one of the best protections against COVID-19 severe illnesses and keeps the university’s community healthy and safe.

Approximately 89% of students and 97% of employees are vaccinated, according to the town hall webinar held on Jan. 18, 2022.

NMSU staff pharmacist Dale Menges, left, administers a Johnson & Johnson COVID booster shot at the Aggie Health and Wellness Center laboratory Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Photo by Selema Graham/Kokopelli)

Dale Menges, the Aggie Health and Wellness Center staff pharmacist, oversees NMSU COVID vaccinations and knows its importance in minimizing serious subsequent health problems and infections.  

“If we are vaccinated, our bodies have better protection from becoming ill from the disease and reduce the opportunity to spread it,” Menges said.

The current COVID vaccination doesn’t give sterilizing immunity. This means it cannot effectively protect people from infection, according to Kathryn Hanley, a Regents Professor of biology and virologist at NMSU who was the Jan. 18 webinar expert guest. Instead, she explained the vaccine provides another type of immunity that protects against severe illnesses caused by COVID.

“It is protection from severe disease that [society and the public health/medical community] really care about,” Hanley said.

NMSU student Isabella Hernandez, who has not been infected with COVID and is fully vaccinated and boosted, decided to get immunized as a protection for herself and others around her.

“I have grandparents with underlying health issues and couldn’t bear to not be able to visit them due to the virus or to carry a burden if I ever were to get them infected,” she said. Her grandparents have high blood pressure and diabetes along with her grandma having asthma, which makes them more vulnerable to suffering COVID severe illnesses in case of infection.

People who are fully vaccinated and boosted have a mild defense against infection and great defense against serious illnesses, according to Hanley. Those vaccinated with only the standard dose just have protection from severe illnesses.

NMSU staff pharmacist Dale Menges loads a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine medication at the Aggie Health and Wellness Center laboratory Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Photo by Selema Graham/Kokopelli)

“No one is too fussed about getting a mild or even a moderate set of ‘cold’ symptoms,” she said.

A 22-year-old UTEP student, who wants to remain anonymous, hasn’t gotten vaccinated mainly because he doesn’t see it as necessary. He got infected with COVID in January 2021, about a month after vaccines started becoming available to the public, and had no severe symptoms or illnesses. “I had only lost my sense of taste and smell,” he said.

“The risk of severe disease/death due to COVID-19 greatly outweighs the risk due to these rare reactions in every age group.”

After quarantine, he developed antibodies. Due to antibodies, health/medical professionals may recommend to not get vaccinated until 90 days after quarantine.

“I went to see my doctor after my quarantine period, and he told me I did not need [the vaccination] since I was exposed and infected,” he said. The 22-year-old student still tested positive for COVID antibodies in October 2021, about 10 months after his infection.

“Having detectable antibodies months after my infection also confirmed this decision,” he added. “The idea is developing some level of protection against COVID.”

Being unvaccinated for religious beliefs and also distrustful thoughts toward vaccination mandates caused him to almost lose his job as a customer service worker. “I had to file for religious and medical exemption[s],” he said. “I do believe the vaccine is the safest way for people who have not been infected with COVID to develop some sort of immunity, but for the government to attempt to force it on anyone and everyone, disregarding natural immunity, is silly.”

While COVID antibodies after an infection do provide natural immunity, vaccines provide a much stronger immunity, according to Menges. “In fact, the people that get COVID and immunization have the strongest protection of all,” he added. 

Some people haven’t gotten vaccinated either because of medical reasons or they are afraid of severe reactions. Very few medical conditions and vaccine reactions contraindicate vaccination, according to Hanley. Allergies to any vaccine component or previous vaccine allergic reactions make people ineligible to be vaccinated. People who suffer anaphylaxis, a potential life-threatening allergic reaction, might have multiple severe allergies. Some vaccines have slightly higher risks of unlikely adverse reactions among some people, who are recommended to get a different vaccine.

In extremely rare events, vaccines are associated with a few serious adverse reactions, including heart inflammation, which is more common in a COVID infection, abnormal blood clotting, anaphylaxis and Guillain-Barre syndrome. Guillain-Barre syndrome is an uncommon condition where a person’s immune system either temporarily or permanently damages the nerves.

“The risk of severe disease/death due to COVID-19 greatly outweighs the risk due to these rare reactions in every age group,” Hanley said.

For people with a “weak immune system,” immunosuppression or autoimmunity, vaccination against COVID is recommended. “It is actually extra important to get the vaccine as you are at higher risk of severe disease,” Hanley added.

COVID-19 can affect any organ of the human body except the bones, according to Menges. With the easy and quick transmission of coronavirus through the mouth and nose, immune systems often can’t effectively fight against this disease, causing serious health problems to many infected people who will require hospitalization and medical support to survive.

“Being vaccinated trains your immune system to recognize the target virus and to eliminate it before it damages a lot of your body,” Menges said. “Unfortunately, this will keep going until everyone is vaccinated — all persons in the world. It is about working together globally to overcome a natural phenomenon that has become dangerous to us all. Being vaccine hesitant is fine, as long as you also accept the responsibility of safe practices: correct mask wearing, social distancing and frequent hand washing.”

Menges invites everyone to always ask trusted health care professionals questions about doubts or concerns as information is key to disinformation.

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