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If You Already Had COVID-19, Should You Get The Vaccine?

What are your questions about the coronavirus vaccine?

ideastream's health team is answering as many questions as possible, with help from local experts in a range of fields. You can send us your questions with our online form, through our social media group, or call us at 216-916-6476. We'll keep the answers coming on our website and on the air.

Fran reached out on ideastream's Facebook page and asked, "If you had the virus and have antibodies (per Red Cross), do you need to take the vaccine?"

According to Dr. Thad Stappenbeck, chair of the inflammatory and immunity department at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute, everyone should get the vaccine - even if they already had the coronavirus.

When the immune system fights off an infection, such as COVID-19, people develop antibodies, which prepare our bodies to protect us if exposed to the same pathogen in the future, Stappenbeck said. But, these antibodies will eventually wear off after some time, he said.

"When you have an infection and you develop antibodies over several weeks, those will peak some weeks to months out, and then they'll begin to decline,"  Stappenbeck said.

"So, you're not going to maintain high levels of antibodies in your bloodstream for every single pathogen you've ever seen."

COVID-19 is still a new virus, and more research is needed to figure out how long COVID-19 antibodies last, he said. Because of this, he recommends everyone get vaccinated, even if they have already been infected.

“If anything, it should just strengthen the immune response that’s already there,” Stappenbeck said.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded its safety analysis of the first COVID-19 vaccine from pharmaceutical company Pfizer Tuesday. Researchers in Pfizer's study recruited both people who had never had COVID-19, and some who had, Stappenbeck said.

No safety concerns or harmful effects were reported in participants who previously had COVID-19 and got the vaccine, he said.

Stappenbeck does not think people who have not had the virus will be prioritized to get the vaccine before people who were previously infected with COVID-19.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to try and discriminate whether you’ve been infected or not, because in many cases, it’s hard to even tell because there are so many asymptomatic cases out there,” Stappenbeck said.

He also does not expect vaccine providers to ask people whether they have had the virus before.

It is also not clear how long immunity from the vaccine will last, Stappenbeck added. More follow-up research is needed to determine if people will need to get vaccinated for COVID-19 annually, like the flu shot, he said.

“We’re going to potentially be doing research on this for the next two decades to try to answer this question,” he said.

The current virus could also change or mutate over time, which would mean the COVID-19 vaccines being developed and administered now would no longer protect people from infection at that point, he said.

“I think we are going to be living with this for a long time,” Stappenbeck said.

The FDA is expected to approve Pfizer's vaccine on Dec. 10, and state officials say the vaccine could arrive in Ohio as early as next week. The FDA is also expected to approve another vaccine candidate, from pharmaceutical company Moderna, on Dec. 17.

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