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A nurse with DOH-Citrus administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to an area resident Thursday, Jan. 7, at DOH-Citrus' drive-thru vaccine clinic at Central Ridge Park. 

Citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, Dr. Keith Singer, the medical director for the departments of health in both Citrus and Marion counties, said those who were previously infected and recovered should wait 90 days before signing up for vaccinations.

People fearful of contracting the coronavirus are flocking to makeshift clinics when they learn the vaccine is available, or they inundate websites to register for inoculations until websites crash.

But for many who have already had the potentially deadly virus, they are in limbo.

Having been exposed to the virus, do they have all the immunity they need or should they compete with others for the vaccine, potentially pushing someone more vulnerable out of line?

Citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, Dr. Keith Singer, the medical director for the departments of health in both Citrus and Marion counties, said those who were previously infected and recovered should wait 90 days before signing up for vaccinations.

“They are assumed to have some level of immunity,” he said. “People who have never had the virus … there’s a limited supply of the vaccine.”

But people who have been exposed to the virus should not think their exposure is a replacement for the vaccine, Singer said.

Only the vaccines offer the “full complement of immunity,” he said.

The single exposure to the virus when people got infected is not “considered adequate to provide full immunity,” Singer said, and is “not equivalent” to getting the vaccine.

In Citrus County alone, more than 7,500 people have been infected by the virus and nearly 300 people have died.

How long natural immunity will last once people are exposed to the virus is uncertain and its strength is unknown over time, Singer said.

What is known is that the immunity due to a previous infection typically decreases, he said.

But getting infected a second time, at least a few months after the initial infection, is rare, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.  

“New findings from a study of thousands of healthcare workers in England show that those who got COVID-19 and produced antibodies against the virus are highly unlikely to become infected again, at least over the several months that the study was conducted,” according to the NIH director’s website.

“In the rare instances in which someone with acquired immunity for SARS-CoV-2 subsequently tested positive for the virus within a six-month period, they never showed any signs of being ill,” the website stated.

“Some earlier studies have shown that people who survive a COVID-19 infection continue to produce protective antibodies against key parts of the virus for several months,” the website stated. “But how long those antibodies last and whether they are enough to protect against reinfection have remained open questions.”

That’s where the vaccination steps in, Singer said.

This is how the most common vaccines work.

The COVID-19 mRNA vaccine tells your cells to make a harmless piece of what’s called a spike protein. That’s the same protein that is found on the surface of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

That protein then causes your body to have an immune response and produce antibodies. That immune response is what protects us if one ever gets infected by the real virus. Essentially, it allows our bodies to make a much more aggressive and faster response if the virus enters our body.

Currently, vaccinations are a two-step process in which the recipient gets their first shot, which can be thought of as a primer to help our bodies recognize if the virus ever attacks our bodies.

The second shot a month later, Singer said, “kicks our immune system into high gear.”

But even after the vaccine, Singer encourages people to avoid crowds, close contact and enclosed spaces.

Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.