What does COVID immunity get me? Not much. The government should catch up to science.

One of my patients, age 45, doesn’t remember having had COVID but he has the antibodies to prove it, and the amounts are quite high. He is happy to have the immune protection while having dodged the clinical bullet. Another patient, 20 years older, obese and at risk of complications, developed double pneumonia but recovered with the help of a monoclonal antibody infusion against the SARS COV 2 virus.

What do these two patients have in common? They have both developed antibodies and a degree of immunity against the virus. A recent report from the National Institutes of Health showed that this immunity can last for at least eight months. 

What is still needed is a better lab test of this immunity as well as permission for the COVID-recovered to go places unrestricted. The science backs this up even if the government doesn’t yet offer its permission slip. This delay in translating evolving science into policy while leaving punitive restrictions in place has been a big problem throughout the pandemic. 

Translate science into policy faster

Consider that as of a week ago, over 20% of Americans and close to 50% of those 65 and over had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This is sure to have an impact and create pockets of community immunity. Over 80% of the COVID deaths in the United States occurred in patients 65 and over. The COVID vaccines have been shown to dramatically decrease severity of illness, and more and more data demonstrate that they decrease viral load and transmission.

Well over 2 million Americans are now being vaccinated daily, and this number is about to increase as Johnson and Johnson shipped out 4 million doses of its newly available vaccine on Monday. This single-dose vaccine, which can be stored in a refrigerator for three months, has been shown to be 85% effective against severe disease and 100% effective against hospitalization and death — with a single shot. 

Stickers to wear after receiving the vaccine on Feb. 26, 2021, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

Why isn’t the government keeping up with the science and translating it immediately into policy? Consider a new Harvard study of 1.2 million people in Israel, close to half of whom had received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. After two doses, the vaccine was found to be just as effective for adults over 70 as for younger people, with a 94% reduction in symptomatic COVID-19, an 87% reduction in hospitalization and, importantly, prevention of 92% of all documented infections — even at a time in Israel when the U.K. B117 highly transmissible variant was surging.

But these results, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, did not lead to an immediate change in policy here as they did in Israel. In fact, the CDC had planned to issue guidance for vaccinated people Thursday, but is holding it up. In Israel, meanwhile, vaccination or proof of immunity from infection has become a ticket to reopening society. A so-called green passport now allows Israelis admission into gyms, shopping malls and restaurants, and travel to Greece and Cypress.

It’s worth it: I’m getting the COVID-19 vaccine. I put my faith in science, Moderna, and myself

Iceland allows travelers to present passports in lieu of quarantine or testing requirements, why can’t we? Why was I compelled to show a negative PCR test result to get into Madison Square Garden to see a basketball game with a socially distanced small crowd when I could have shown my proof of vaccine card from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The science is showing that vaccination or recovery from COVID or both are far more reliable indicators than a negative COVID test, which can easily be done at the wrong time in the disease process.

Consider public health, not politics

Critics of the so-called vaccine passport say that rewarding immunity is a way of penalizing those who aren’t yet immune. While this may be a fair point, it is imperative to look at this more from a purely public health perspective; who is at risk, and who is putting others at risk. If you are in the rapidly growing immune group, you are much less likely to spread or get sick from the virus. This is the public health bottom line. It doesn’t mean it’s time to throw away your masks or to resume gathering in crowds, but it does mean that you can see grandma, especially if both of you have been vaccinated.

COVID model: No, school can’t open like the NFL. It’s much more complicated than that.

A public health perspective includes more than just the ravages of the virus, it also must consider the loneliness and isolation that have been caused by the efforts to control it. Sometimes these efforts are effective, especially when they are imposed in advance of viral spread, but sometimes they are excessive and cause greater harm than good. There is an epidemic of depression and anxiety here to match the COVID pandemic.

Our government has made many promises it hasn’t kept. We must not allow the vaccine to become another political weapon. We need to use our immunity as a bridge to reopen society and overcome our depression and isolation now before its too late. If there is a tangible incentive to take the vaccine in terms of restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, and travel, then many more people will do so.

My mother-in-law, bedbound from multiple sclerosis, turns 80 this month. I have not seen her in a year, but now that we are vaccinated, I’ll be on my way there soon to celebrate with her.

Dr. Marc Siegel, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a Fox News medical correspondent, is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. His latest book, “COVID: the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science,” was published last fall. Follow him on Twitter: @DrMarcSiegel

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