As the highly contagious omicron variant surges COVID-19 cases to record highs, some are wondering if they should intentionally get the virus in the hope of developing immunity. The answer: No, absolutely not, say Cedars-Sinai experts.
“It sounds like playing with fire to me,” said Cedars-Sinai hospitalist Nicole Van Groningen, MD, who has treated hundreds of COVID-19 patients.
The Cedars-Sinai Newsroom spoke with Van Groningen and infectious disease expert Catherine Le, MD, co-director of the Cedars-Sinai COVID-19 Recovery Program, to understand the reasons why getting COVID-19 on purpose is a very bad idea.
1. You Could Become Very Ill
Even though the omicron variant appears to be causing a milder illness among many vaccinated people, it can still lead to a severe case of COVID-19, especially among the unvaccinated as well as cancer and transplant patients and others with weakened immune systems.
“There is no guarantee you’ll have a mild case,” Van Groningen said. “Some people still get really sick and need to come to the hospital. Others feel really miserable at home. Some patients say it’s worse than the worst flu they ever had.”
Van Groningen added that there are a lot of new treatments coming out that have recently been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that might be helpful to people who have a mild disease and could prevent a serious illness. But these medications are not widely available yet, are only prescribed for high-risk patients, and are in short supply. Meanwhile, many of the most commonly used medications for treating COVID-19 in the past have proved less effective against the omicron variant.
2. You Could Infect Others, Who Could Become Much Sicker
If you get COVID-19, you can unknowingly spread it to others who could get much sicker than you, Le warned.
“You might be young, otherwise healthy and do fine,” Le said. “But let’s say you don’t know exactly when you got COVID-19 or when you became infectious, and you give it to someone in your family or the community who is at risk for a bad outcome. It’s very hard to control.”
Le added that the natural immunity one develops after being ill with COVID-19 is not any better than the immunity provided by vaccination, according to scientific data.
“If you’re searching for immunity, why not just get vaccinated?” Le said. “And anyone who is eligible for a booster shot should get one. Vaccination is the most potent weapon we have against this pandemic.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 5 and older should get a COVID-19 vaccination, and anyone 12 and older should get a booster shot when eligible.
3. You Could Develop ‘Long COVID-19’
One of the most serious potential consequences of getting infected is that up to 30% of people who become ill develop lingering symptoms, also known as “long COVID-19.” Le and her colleagues in the COVID-19 Recovery Program and the Post-COVID-19 Cardiology Clinic have treated hundreds of these patients, many of whom are young and experienced only mild COVID-19 symptoms.
“You don’t have to have COVID-19 really bad to get all these potentially really severe and debilitating symptoms that can last for over a year,” Le said. “A wide variety of people can get it, including adolescents. Young, healthy people make up a lot of our clinic.”
Le added that some long-COVID-19 patients of working age are on disability for at least six months. “That’s a huge impact on your life, and we have no idea if omicron will be any different,” Le said.