Physician assistant Becky DeCamillis, of Novant Health Infectious Disease Specialists – Winston Salem, gets asked all the time: Can I skip the vaccine if I already had the coronavirus? Doesn’t that make me immune? Her answers follow. Bottom line: Why roll the dice when vaccines are available? And just because COVID-19 is receding, doesn't mean the pandemic is over. It's not. People who were not fully vaccinated are still getting sick. 

If I've already had COVID-19, why do I need the vaccine?

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Becky DeCamillis

People who have had COVID-19 often have some immunity after recovering, but the level of protection varies from person to person and we don't know how long this protection lasts. Since immunity after infection is unreliable, we can't say for sure that having COVID-19 protects someone from passing it to others or getting infected again, although reinfection is uncommon within the first 90 days after testing positive.

Vaccination, on the other hand, provides consistent immunity with higher antibody levels than what is seen after COVID-19 infection. Immunity from the vaccines is also proving to be long-lasting, with studies showing least six months of protective antibodies so far. Therefore, it is recommended that those who have previously had COVID-19 get vaccinated.

If I've had COVID-19, are there any scenarios in which I should NOT get vaccinated?

If diagnosed with COVID-19, you should isolate, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. You are eligible for the vaccine once your isolation period is over, which is usually 10 days after symptom onset if your symptoms are improving. If you received convalescent plasma or monoclonal antibody therapy for your infection, you should wait 90 days prior to getting vaccinated.

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Do I still need both doses of the mRNA vaccine (Pfizer or Moderna) if I've had COVID-19 before?

Yes. We don't have strong data to say that only one dose of the mRNA vaccine provides lasting protection for this group.

I felt really bad when I had COVID-19 and don't want to go through those symptoms again. Will the vaccine make me sick?

Like everyone else, those who have had COVID-19 previously may have some side effects, also known as expected effects after receiving the vaccine, like sore arm, tiredness, body aches, malaise, headache or fever. Fortunately, these symptoms are short-lived and usually resolve within 48-72 hours. We don't have data to say that people with previous infection experience more severe expected effects than those without previous infection. It's also important to remember that none of the COVID-19 vaccines can give you the virus itself.

In a nutshell: There's little way to know if you are protected from reinfection after having COVID-19, or how long that immunity will last. Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself. It will also protect you from passing the virus on to your family and friends.