With the rates of COVID-19 rising, should you “just get the virus and get it over with”?
Short answer, a firm no.
Longer answer, as of today (July 6) there have been 130,208 US deaths from COVID-19 over the span of only a few months. Current data suggest that about 80% of people infected with COVID-19 do not get severely ill (World Health Organization, 2020). This suggests that four of every five people would "get away with" getting COVID-19 without experiencing severe consequences.
However, this way of thinking discounts some important risk-related considerations for the person being exposed and those around them.
Dr. Charlotte Moser of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia warns that we do not know nearly enough about duration of immunity nor the long-term consequences of the disease. Further, what we do know is disconcerting.
Duration of immunity
Several questions about COVID-19 immunity remain unanswered, including whether infection protects against reinfection and, if so, for how long. Antibody duration and the significance of particular antibodies, such as neutralizing antibodies, also remains elusive (JAMA, 2020).
Further, we have yet to understand the role of antibodies in the resolution of disease or the ability of a person to spread the virus. Although experience with other pathogens can help us predict how long immunity will last, hypotheses are not data; the reality is that duration of immunity and protection from reinfection remain unknown. Intentional exposure may not lead to long-term immunity nor protect against reinfection—the very goals of the action.
Long-term consequences of infection
At the outset of the pandemic, experience with hospitalizations and severe disease suggested that children were, for the most part, spared. Then, reports started to appear about multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) associated with COVID-19. Growing evidence suggests MIS-C can occur in previously asymptomatic children and, in at least some cases, well after the start of infection, as evidenced by IgG-positive serology. Additionally, this so-dubbed "Kawasaki-like" syndrome appears to be more severe than the disease after which it was named, with increased cardiac-related symptoms and macrophage activation syndrome, as well as varying effects on several other organ systems. In a UK case cluster, seven of eight children required mechanical ventilation support, and tragically, one child died.
Likewise, the long-term or delayed-onset effects on adults who survive severe infections remain uncertain, but pulmonary, neurologic, and cardiovascular damage, including stroke, have been reported.
Important to the consideration of deliberate exposure is that we can't predict which people will experience these types of complications.
Intentional exposure also has community implications. Neither presymptomatic nor asymptomatic transmission have been ruled out. Although someone choosing to deliberately expose themselves or their child could presumably self-quarantine for 14 days to prevent transmission, this would require an adherence to self-quarantine measures by everyone living in the home.
Given that up to 40% of infected individuals could be asymptomatic, it is not difficult to anticipate that those family members could opt to go to work or run errands. Further, as society "reopens," the likelihood of adhering to a minimum 2-week self-quarantine will presumably decrease and be compounded by lack of adherence to social distancing recommendations, as indicated by numerous videos from Memorial Day events and recent protests.
Severity of secondary cases
One thing that is clear is that people with mild illness can transmit COVID-19 to others, who then become severely ill and, in some cases, die. Although this may not be surprising, it is a reminder that people aren't just making a choice for themselves but also for those with whom they come in contact. This is of particular concern for family members with high-risk conditions. Likewise, individuals may become sick enough that they cannot care for themselves, further increasing their risk to others.
Limited healthcare resources
The reason society shut down was to "flatten the curve," thereby providing important time to shore up resources and learn more about this new virus, especially how to treat it. Although we are in a better place, much remains to be learned. Likewise, communities could still quickly be overwhelmed by a spike in cases. Officials monitoring hospital resources currently indicate that available ICU beds are limited in more than half of US states.
If you made it this far in the blog, I hope you are heading over to the sink to wash your hands, don your mask, stay home, and stay COVID-19 negative.