By Dr. Anthony Policastro

A few months back I wrote a column about infections in early America. When the Europeans brought smallpox with them it wiped out large numbers of Native Americans. The example I used was that between 1519 and 1619 Mexico’s population dropped from 15 million to 1.5 million people.

That column had relevance this past week. I had a reader express concern that I was vaccine shaming people by saying that if they did not get the COVID-19 vaccine, they would get the infection instead.

He was concerned because he had a niece who had cancer. Her chemotherapy and radiation therapy had affected her to the point where she could not get the vaccine even if she wanted it.

There are individuals that indeed are not eligible for the vaccine. Those who are allergic to some of the ingredients are the best example.

The issue is that I have repeatedly said that the choice is vaccine or natural infection. That is not meant to be vaccine shaming. That is stating a fact of nature. All viruses (COVID-19 or otherwise) will work their way through a population until everyone has immunity.

That immunity can come from an infection. That immunity can come from a vaccine. That’s just the way infectious diseases work. That is how infectious viruses work in the wild.

I know that may not be the message that everyone wants to hear. Last week I wrote about how medical personnel were often shot as the messenger when they gave bad news.

Giving this kind of information kind of makes me the messenger. If it is not the message that people want to hear, it will be upsetting. The result is that they will be upset with the person giving the message.

However, like I also said last week, this is normal human behavior. Bad news is viewed as a loss. Loss results in denial first and anger second. It is to be expected.

Unfortunately, that does not really change the scientific facts. Viruses will continue to infect people until enough of them are immune. That immunity can come from vaccine. That immunity can come from infection.

The vaccine is currently recommended even for individuals who have had natural infection. The basis for that is the boost to antibodies that a vaccine gives to those individuals. That should not be surprising. That is how the body works.

It is likely that individuals with past natural infections do have antibodies that protect them from a serious infection upon re-exposure. If they do get infected, they are likely to have milder symptoms. So vaccinating already infected individuals might be overkill. We do not really know for sure.

What we do know for sure is that infectious diseases follow a predictable pattern. That pattern was even present when the Europeans first came to the Americas hundreds of years ago.

COVID update

Nationally, the number of new cases dropped from 768,000 last week to 686,000 this week. That is still significantly higher than the 200,000 or so per week that we were running back in the spring. So there is room to drop further. The number of new cases in Sussex County went from 858 last week to 832 this week.

I would expect that individuals who have received their booster doses of vaccine would be able to return to normal activities without a mask two weeks later. However, I have not been able to find any recommendations to that effect yet.

Hopefully, we will soon see that kind of recommendation. That was what was recommended by the CDC in May after the first round of vaccine. It changed with the Delta variant. However, we should see a return to that again in the future.

A new study last week looked at substance use and COVID-19 breakthrough infections. They found that individuals who are chronic users of marijuana have problems with their immunity to COVID-19 after vaccination.

They are about twice as likely as non-users to have a breakthrough infection. Of more concern is that those infections tend to be more serious. They are more than 10 times as likely to be hospitalized. They are three times more likely to die.

They also looked at opiate and cocaine users but they did not show the same issues with breakthrough infections.