As reports surface of breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals across the country, many people are concerned about just how protected they actually are against the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains that getting vaccinated is the best way to keep yourself healthy, even though no vaccine is 100 percent effective. But while all three vaccines approved for use in the U.S. are still working well to keep you safe from severe COVID, some people are more protected than others—and not just based on which shot they got.
In a Sept. 19 interview on NBC News' Meet the Press, White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, discussed immunity against the virus and a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel's decision to not yet recommend booster shots for the general public. According to the COVID adviser, natural infection and vaccination together is more protective against the coronavirus than just two shots of a COVID vaccine on its own.
"We do know that when you do get infected, you get strong immunity. There's no doubt about that," he said. "If you do get infected and recover and get vaccinated, the level of your immunity is extraordinarily high, surpassing any of the other two-dose vaccines that you get."
A CDC study published Aug. 13 looked at more than 730 Kentucky residents who had a confirmed COVID infection in 2020, with around 250 getting reinfected in May or June 2021 and nearly 500 not reinfected. Based on this study, those who remained unvaccinated after their first infection were more than two times as likely to be a part of the reinfected group than those who had gotten fully vaccinated after having the virus.
According to Fauci, there is also clear evidence that when you get just a single shot following recovery from natural infection, "you get a very good immune response." But Fauci also told NBC's Chuck Todd that there is no clear research determining how long natural immunity lasts over time on its own.
"We're following that, but [we don't know] yet," he said. "The thing that's still unclear is what the durability of natural infection induced immunity is, and what is the scope of its protection against different variants."
The CDC still recommends that everyone eligible get the standard doses required for their vaccination process—whether that's two shots with Pfizer or Moderna or one for Johnson&Johnson—even if they have already had COVID. "If you have had COVID-19 before, please still get vaccinated," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said in a statement. "Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others around you, especially as the more contagious Delta variant spreads around the country."
The FDA advisory panel also just recommended third shots of Pfizer for those 65 years or older or otherwise at high risk of severe COVID due to underlying medical conditions or jobs that put them at special risk, like health care workers and emergency responders, once they are six months out from their second dose. That means a third dose may soon be recommended for these groups, as long as the FDA's official approval aligns with the panel's recommendation—as it usually does, per The New York Times.
Above all, Fauci said that the "highest priority" right now is still getting unvaccinated people vaccinated. "There should be no confusion about that. The highest priority is not getting boosters. We think it's important to get boosters to people, but the overwhelming highest priority is to vaccinate the unvaccinated," he said during his NBC interview.