Why you shouldn't deliberately expose yourself to COVID 'to get it over with'

If you ask public health experts their advice on whether or not purposely getting COVID is a good idea, the answer is a resounding no.

Maija Kappler 6 minute read January 25, 2022
Unhealthy people suffer from covid-19 symptoms

Even "mild" COVID can exacerbate health issues that can be dangerous or fatal. GETTY

Most Canadians think it’s inevitable that they’ll eventually contract the highly infectious Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID, according to an Angus Reid poll released on Jan. 13.

In fact, some of us have even come around to the idea of purposely exposing ourselves to the virus just to “get it over with.” There are reports of people throwing “COVID parties,” analogous to chicken pox parties where parents deliberately expose their kids to the contagious virus to save them from infection in later life.

But if you were to ask public health experts their advice on whether getting COVID “over with” is a good idea, the answer is a resounding no.

It’s ‘not 21st century thinking’

The idea of deliberately infecting yourself “is not 21st century thinking, it’s not 20th century thinking, it’s 19th century thinking,” Dr. James T. McDeavitt, dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told the L.A. Times.

While we are all feeling pandemic fatigue, here’s why it’s still important to do everything possible to avoid getting the virus.

We still don’t know much about natural immunity

Many reports claim that once you’ve contracted COVID, your body produces natural immunity that will keep you safe against future infections. For most people, that’s true — but it’s not the case for everyone. A September study from the CDC found that 36 per cent of people who had previously contracted COVID didn’t generate any antibodies.

And even when natural immunity is an effective COVID deterrent, there’s a much safer  way to increase the odds of a less severe COVID illness: vaccination.

“There is no evidence that natural immunity is better than vaccine generated immunity, and some evidence that vaccine generated immunity is more robust and longer lasting,” Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious diseases physician and assistant professor at the University of Alberta, told Forbes. “Getting the vaccine is much much safer than getting the virus.”

Re-infection happens

Because natural immunity wanes over time, as does immunity from vaccines, we are seeing people getting COVID-19 twice. The first confirmed case was a man in Hong Kong, who was infected in March 2020 and then again that August. And while re-infection can happen to anyone, those who are unvaccinated are more than twice as likely to be reinfected than those who are vaccinated. In fact, a U.K. study last December found that Omicron’s re-infection risk was more than five times higher than Delta’s.

Dr. Amesh Adlja, a senior scholar at John Hopkins Center for Health Security, told NBC News that it’s too soon to say with certainty, but it’s likely that people are getting Omicron twice.

“I suspect over time, yes, you probably can get reinfected,” he said. “But we don’t have that data yet because omicron has only been around since October/November.”

Calling it ‘mild’ eclipses the risk

We’ve all come to think of Omicron as a “mild” illness, but that terminology can eclipse just how damaging it can be, said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.

“While Omicron does appear to be less severe compared to Delta, especially in those vaccinated, it does not mean it should be categorized as mild,” he said at a press conference on Jan. 6. “Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalizing people and it is killing people. In fact, the tsunami of cases is so huge and quick, that it is overwhelming health systems around the world.”

The word ‘mild’ doesn’t mean what you think it means

Mild means not immediately requiring medical intervention — which can include “everything from asymptomatic cases all the way up to people just short of going into respiratory failure,” Katherine J. Wu wrote in The Atlantic.
Plus, even “mild” COVID can exacerbate health issues that can be dangerous or fatal.
Lekshmi Santhosh, a critical care physician, told The Atlantic that she’s seen many such cases. “You could say they didn’t die of COVID,” she said. “But if they didn’t have COVID, they wouldn’t have had this issue.”
And if your immune system is compromised, because of cancer treatment, for example, or an autoimmune disorder, you are still extremely vulnerable to infection.
“High-risk people should not be made to feel that they are on their own to protect themselves,” Dr. Dorry Segev and Dr. who treat transplant recipients at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, wrote in The New York Times. “Public health officials and other providers must realize that Omicron is especially scary for the immunocompromised because it is so contagious and widespread and can infect even people with robust immune systems.”

And then there’s the critical reason you shouldn’t purposely get infected: long COVID can be devastating.

About 60 per cent of Canadians reported at least one long-term symptom of “long COVID,” according to Health Canada. Symptoms include pain, PTSD, memory problems, fatigue, trouble sleeping, shortness of breath, problems with concentration, anxiety or depression — and the fallout can be devastating.

Some people will be changed forever by long COVID, rehabilitation specialist Dr. Shawn Marshall told the Ottawa Citizen in September: “Most of us had been expecting this. There is no way something like this goes through the population without a number of people being left with severe disability.”

Unvaccinated people face hospitalization, death

While in many ways the virus is unpredictable — young, healthy people die from COVID — there is one predictable outcome: hospitalization and death are much more likely in unvaccinated people who get sick. In fact, the vast majority of those hospitalized or killed by COVID in Canada, and around the world, are unvaccinated. As of Jan. 1, unvaccinated Canadians represent 77 per cent of COVID hospitalizations and 75 per cent of deaths, according to Health Canada.

Hana Horka, a 57-year-old Czech folk singer, was unvaccinated and chose not to isolate when her husband and son developed COVID. She opted to get infected, her son Jan Rek told the BBC, because the Czech Republic requires either proof of vaccination or proof of recovery from a recent COVID infection to access certain services.

“Now there will be theatre, sauna, a concert,” she wrote on social media on Jan. 14. She died two days later.

Rek shared his mother’s story with the media to convince people to get vaccinated.

“If you have living examples from real life, it’s more powerful than just graphs and numbers,” he said. “You can’t really sympathize with numbers.”


Maija Kappler is a reporter and editor at Healthing. You can reach her at mkappler@postmedia.com
Thank you for your support. If you liked this story, please send it to a friend. Every share counts.