Breakthrough COVID mild, natural COVID immunity fades after a few months, Dr. Angela Dunn says

After more than two years of monitoring the spread of COVID-19, first as state epidemiologist and now as head of the Salt Lake County Health Department, Dr. Angela Dunn said she caught the virus about two weeks ago from her 10-year-old are.

“I finally got COVID,” Dunn told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Monday. Although she tested positive until day 10 of her illness, Dunn said she wasn’t very sick. Nor was her son de ella, who apparently picked up the virus during an outbreak among his fourth grade classmates. Both have received all their COVID-19 shots.

“My son and I had a very mild illness. If it wasn’t labeled as COVID, I would have just thought it was some little cold and no big deal. And that’s what we want, right? That’s what we’ve been striving for, for two years, is for it not to be a big deal if you got infected. And we are there if you are up to date on your vaccinations,” Dunn said.

There’ll be breakthrough cases among those who are fully vaccinated and boosted, but the shots are still effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths even as the virus continues to mutate, she said, adding “the fact that we have some cases that have been vaccinated , from a public health perspective, it’s not that big of a deal.”

But less than half of Salt Lake County residents — and just 28.5% of all Utahns — have received all their COVID-19 shots. The initial series of shots are available to anyone 5 and older, and a booster dose to anyone 12 and older. Those 50 and older or with certain medical conditions are also eligible for a second booster shot.

What’s important now, Dunn said, is getting more Utahns vaccinated since the state is already seeing “a slow, very mild increase” in COVID-19, evident in rising case counts and other indicators, such as wastewater surveillance and how many people are seeking emergency care for the virus.

For now, “the really good news” is that hospitalization for COVID-19 continues to decrease in Utah, although that’s not what’s happening in New York and other states harder hit by new, even more transmissible versions of the omicron variant that sent cases soaring around the country earlier this year.

“I think we’re still in good shape, even against the new omicron variants,” Dunn said. “But people need to be up to date. That means getting their booster, right, if they’re eligible. Getting that sense of urgency across to the public has been challenging.”

The immunity from previous COVID-19 infections lasts only three or four months, she said, meaning anyone relying on having caught the virus during last winter’s record-breaking omicron surge should recognize that immunity “is gone, for the most part. They need that vaccination.”

Utahns are nearing a return to normal, Dunn said.

“I think we’re almost there, yeah. It’s still a pandemic, because it’s still spreading in countries, various countries across the world. But we in the United States are in a better place than we were six months ago, three months ago. So the pandemic is not over but we’re in a different phase,” she said.

Those who are up to date on their vaccinations “can make the personal choice to kind of go about your normal life, whatever that looks like for you, and largely be protected against severe disease. I think for myself, personally, that’s a great feeling, especially with two young kids, to feel like they’re protected, right, because they got their vaccine.”

Dunn said there’s no longer a need for “large mandates, or closing of restaurants and bars, that type of thing. We’re past that point because we have such effective vaccinations, where individuals can kind of take that upon themselves.”

Still, the Biden administration’s warning that the nation could face 100 million new COVID-19 cases this fall worries her, while Utah Department of Health modeling indicated there could be up to 2,000 new cases in the state daily by mid-June, more than four times the current average.

“Those numbers make me panic,” Dunn said. She noted that while a boost in summer cases is concerning, since the pandemic began more than two years ago, “we have not gotten through a fall without a huge surge. The past two falls, we’ve just seen the cases drastically increase.”

But there “are very concrete things we can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones that makes me feel less anxious,” she said, such as testing after being exposed to the virus, staying home if sick and getting vaccinated. For those who don’t want the shots, Dunn recommended masking with “a high filtration respirator.”

And rather than focus on case counts, she said Utahns should pay attention to how many people become severely ill.

“If they’re all mild, like from a public health perspective, I don’t care how many runny noses there are out there. I just don’t,” Dunn said, adding that the goal continues to be to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.

“It’s fine if you get COVID and you are vaccinated, for the most part. I mean, it was a pain in the butt to stay home for 10 days,” she said of her own infection. “To feel fine at the end of it is really, it’s a luxury, but it shouldn’t be. We should all be up to date on our vaccines and those who can’t get vaccinated or are more vulnerable should be comforted by the fact that the vast majority of people around them are vaccinated. We’re just not there yet.”

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