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Sure, natural immunity to COVID-19 may be better, but how would you safely get that? Mayo doc answers virus questions on La Crosse Talk PM

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A strain on the healthcare system due to COVID-19 isn’t often seen from the public’s perspective in the La Crosse area.

There have been times where hospitals were at near capacity. The sacrifice when that happens comes from other departments — like pushing back elective surgeries — so more COVID patients can be admitted.

It’s getting to be that way again. And a vast majority of those hospitalized due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated — over 90% according to the lead physician on Mayo Clinic Health System’s COVID-19 team in Southwest Wisconsin, Dr. Erin Morcomb.

“Certainly over the last few weeks, we have seen an uptick in hospitalizations,” Morcomb said. “In the last month, there was probably just as many people in the hospital here in La Crosse at Mayo, as we saw earlier in the pandemic.

“And, by a large majority, 90%-plus have been patients that are unvaccinated.”

Morcomb spent the hour Tuesday on La Crosse Talk PM discussing an array of COVID-19 issues, including monoclonal antibody treatments, natural immunity vs. the vaccine, long-hauler side effects, and, among other things, how the vaccine was created so quickly.

One of the oddities for those still unsure about getting vaccinated because they don’t know what’s in it, is that they are perfectly willing to accept any type of treatment after contracting the virus.

Monoclonal antibody treatments are now being dispersed to people who have contracted COVID-19 but have learned of infection early enough to fight it in this way.

“You come in,” Morcomb explained, “and you get something put in through your IV that helps to really combat that infection, and neutralize the COVID-19 infection to hopefully make it so you don’t have as severe symptoms or end up having to be hospitalized.

“Certainly antibody therapies can have side effects as well,” she added. “The vaccine is very safe and people should not be hesitant about that in comparison to other medicines.”

Along with reiterating the vaccine is a much safer route to go, it comes at no cost. Often times, a person can walk in and get vaccinated (find a clinic here).

Other such treatments that have been developed since the pandemic began to combat those infected with COVID-19, however, have a monetary cost, a physical cost on one’s body and one other cost.

“Much less cost to the healthcare system and the population in general to get vaccinated and prevent it from the beginning,” Morcomb said. “And much better to prevent getting COVID than to have to try to backtrack and get therapy to help prevent — once you’ve had it — from getting worse.”

For some people, getting infected from COVID-19 never went away. They’re called long-haulers, with side effects like a loss of taste or smell, chronic fatigue, shortness of breath and joint or chest pain, to name a few.

At this point, how long these side effects last is really anybody’s guess.

“We don’t really know,” Morcomb said. “Is this going to be a chronic problem for them going on for years? And is there really any fix to some of that? Will they ever be able to go back to their full functional status that they had before?”

Another problem with these long-haulers, a marathon runner may end up with chronic fatigue that never goes away, while a two-packs-a-day smoker could recover fully.

“It’s sometimes really hard to identify who’s going to be the patients that suffer from that,” Morcomb said. “And if we could prevent having them get COVID with a vaccine to begin with, hopefully we could prevent some of these long-haul symptoms.”

Morcomb said she’s had patients lose taste or smell for months after being infected. She’s also had perfectly fit patients get hospitalized and die of the virus.

When it comes to how effective the vaccine is versus a natural immunity, Morcomb first pointed out, there’s no way to safely get natural immunity without great risk — from these long-hauler side effects that could last months, years or forever, to death.

But, she did say natural immunity might be better. It’s just not feasible. And those people should still get vaccinated.

Despite joking that someone could simply expose themselves to “just a little COVID” from, perhaps, a roommate who has mild symptoms, the virus just doesn’t work like that.

“It is recommended that patients that have had COVID-19 infection also consider getting vaccinated after they are recovered,” Morcomb said. “There are some studies that have shown, yes natural infection, you might have some higher level of antibodies than just people who have not had infection and have been vaccinated.

“But you have even higher levels of antibodies if you had natural infection plus you’ve been vaccinated afterwards.”

Host of WIZM's La Crosse Talk PM | University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate | Hometown: Greenville, Wis | Avid noonball basketball player and sand volleyballer in La Crosse

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