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As Noem seeks to recognize 'natural immunity,' doctor says vaccines provide better protection

COVID vaccine
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Governor Kristi Noem wants to pass a law allowing for workplace exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates, including what she calls "natural immunity."

"I am bringing legislation this session to protect the people’s right to a medical or religious exemption from COVID vaccines, just as my executive order did for state employees. We will also recognize natural immunity," Noem said Tuesday during her State of the State address.

The phrase "natural immunity" applies to people who've already had the disease. But medical studies and a South Dakota expert say vaccination and booster shots are the safer and more effective way to slow the spread of the virus and weaken the disease, especially the omicron variant.

Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health in Rapid City, said people should get vaccinated and boosted, even if they've had prior infections. He said infections provide some immunity, but it's variable and comes with the risk of hospitalizations, effects of long COVID, and in some cases death.

Vaccines rarely cause long-term side effects and are more effective and consistent than natural immunity, he said. They are especially helpful at preventing serious infection.

More than 90% of patients being treated for COVID-19 at Monument Health hospitals have not completed their single or double vaccine series, Kurra said. Some of them are on their second or third COVID infection.

"If you're naturally infected, you're not protected against omicron," Kurra said. "Please vaccinate, please get boosters. The eligible population owes it to the zero to 5-year-olds and the 65 and older."

Kids under the age of 5 are vulnerable since vaccines aren't yet authorized for them. People 65 and older, Kurra said, have a higher risk of serious infection or death even when vaccinated.

Multiple studies show vaccines prevent COVID-19 and serious infections more than natural infection, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

"Current data suggests that those who have been previously infected have little to no protection against omicron infection," a former professor at Harvard Medical School wrote in Forbes.

Noem has not yet introduced her vaccine exemption bill.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.