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Why vaccines still offer some help after six months and other COVID questions answered

A CVS Pharmacy worker asks a patient questions before administering a COVID-19 vaccine.
Scott Eisen / CVS Health
FR171005 AP
A CVS Pharmacy worker asks a patient questions before administering a COVID-19 vaccine.

The following quotes are from medical professionals in interviews given last week. If you have COVID or other health questions, email catherine@stateimpactoklahoma.org.

We know that antibodies from the COVID-19 vaccines in your system wane after six months, which is why we’re told to get boosters. Six months after your two shots, are you essentially unvaccinated? Is your extra immunity gone?

Dr. Aaron Wendelboe, former state epidemiologist and current professor at the OU College of Public Health, said that immunity is much higher after a booster, but it is still higher with the two vaccines than it would be with no vaccines at all.

He said one reason people get confused and think that immunity is totally gone after six months is because of the term “circulating antibodies.” We hear that those are gone after six months.

"Nobody ever has circulating antibodies for really any pathogen for this long period of time," said Wendelboe. "So you have memory cells, and those memory cells, when they get re-exposed to a pathogen, they will make those antibodies and, they will make those killer T cells, and they will mount the response. They can react within, let’s say, five days."

Wendelboe continued, "The problem with COVID is that — both Delta, and even more so Omicron — they’re replicating so fast. That’s the primary reason why people are getting infected: they can infect you before your memory cells have a chance to kick in. But they’re still blunting some of that risk of getting hospitalized or severe illness."

So in summary, Wendelboe says that if you’re vaccinated but not boosted, you don’t have those circulating antibodies anymore. But the vaccine has taught your immune system how to fight back. It just takes a little bit longer.

He compared response times in non-boosted but still vaccinated people and completely unvaccinated people. The first body might take five days or so to fully mount an attack. The second body is likely to take closer to 14 days. Those nine days make a huge difference, he said, because viral growth is exponential.

Think about it like this: There are two sides in a battle. Your side and the enemy’s side. Your side’s army has the same number of people until backup comes. The other side’s army is constantly multiplying. The longer backup takes to get there, the larger the enemy’s army will be.

Is the omicron variant really less likely to cause infections so severe people land in the hospital? If so, are fewer people going to end up being in the hospital?

Wendelboe: Yes, there are a lower proportion of people being hospitalized, but because the sheer number [of cases] is so high, that still just results in a high number of people being hospitalized.

Note: Oklahoma has broken case count records this week, and on Thursday, the state reported more than 10,000 cases in one day for the first time. This excludes rapid and at-home tests, which aren’t reported to the state.

I’ve heard people who are vaccinated are getting infected more often than people who aren’t vaccinated. Is that true?

"That is not true. We know that to be incorrect," said Dr. Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association.

Clarke said a few things could make that appear true, especially among social groups where many people don’t believe in vaccines. People who do get vaccinated are more likely to get tested, and they’re more likely to let people know they’ve been infected.

Catherine Sweeney was StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter from 2020 to 2023.
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