COVID “Immunity Debt” isn’t Real

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Well, it’s late fall/early winter and we’re heading towards year 3 of a global pandemic so you know what that means: our emergency rooms are filling up with people in severe respiratory distress, meaning people need to delay elective procedures like cancer treatment until we find more beds and medical staff for them. Fun!

This time, it’s not just COVID. It IS COVID, but it’s also two other diseases: influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), both of which, like COVID, are viruses that attack the lungs. So we now have this “triple threat,” and to make matters worse, the demographics that seem to be getting hit the hardest are children and seniors. Seniors are being hospitalized at about 10 times the rate that they were at this time of year pre-pandemic, and while that’s obviously bad, those numbers pale in comparison to what’s happening to children. Pediatricians in the US are calling for Biden to declare a national emergency as they run out of beds in children’s hospitals are forced to send kids to community hospitals that are less equipped to take care of them.

This burgeoning disaster has a lot of people, and by “people” I mostly mean “COVID misinformation bots,” to say it’s due to “immunity debt,” “a concept described by some as an unintended boomerang effect of distancing, masking and other COVID containment measures used to slow SARS-CoV-2’s spread.”

Honestly, can we just outlaw a tiny bit of knowledge? It…it just causes so many problems like this. Like, “Oh, when your body encounters a disease, it learns how to fight the disease and then remembers it for later.” Yep, that’s true! “So if your body does not encounter a disease, it must be WEAK and a PRIME ATTACK TARGET!” No. No! Not true!

Let me be very clear: you, as an individual, are not weaker or more prone to infection because you’ve spent the past two years avoiding diseases. You do NOT need to get sick in order to be healthy.

I’ve talked about this before, waaaaay back in the heady days of spring 2021, which I cannot distinguish in my memory from spring of 2020. They were the same time. Prove me wrong.

Okay, there was one big difference which is that in the spring of 2021 vaccines were finally becoming widely available, so a lot of people were talking about their immune systems, and how they wanted the strongest immune system possible. They think of the immune system like a muscle, so obviously stronger is better. But your immune system is NOT a muscle and “stronger” is NOT what’s best for you: you want a BALANCED immune system, because if your immune system gets TOO strong it thinks everything is a threat and it will go to war against things like the food you’re trying to eat to live, or the god damn flowers you smell. 

And your immune system also differs from your muscles in that it does NOT get weaker if it’s not actively fighting an infection. As I said in that previous video, the “hygiene hypothesis,” aka the idea that kids who get sick will grow up to be healthier, has been thoroughly debunked. The reason why people like me, who grew up playing in the woods, are healthier with fewer allergies isn’t because rolling around in the mud got me sick, but because it exposed my body to BENEFICIAL microbes, teaching my immune system that NOT every foreign substance is a danger that needs attacking.

Meanwhile, study after study shows that kids who are exposed to dangerous microbes are more likely to end up damaged: children who get viral infections like RSV are significantly more likely to end up with asthma, for instance.

COVID mitigation efforts MIGHT be playing a partial role in this influx of sick kids, in that babies who were not exposed to RSV in 2020 are now toddlers entering into unmasked preschools where they are picking it up. But here’s the thing: it’s GOOD that they didn’t get it as babies because it’s more dangerous to babies than it is to toddlers. And the fact that they’re getting it now is actually an argument for why we should go back to masking inside as often as we can, to stop the spread of ALL these viruses that are ramping up for winter.

But experts point out that the number of kids in the hospital can’t be fully explained by a lag in the number of kids who are being infected after two years of avoiding infections. They point out that there’s something else going on, and we need more data and study to figure out exactly what. But there is a pretty obvious lead suspect: COVID. 

“The leading hypothesis now is that COVID is harming the immune system,” immunologist Colin Furness told Global News. “To what extent and how permanently, these are things we don’t know. But that’s what the data seem to be telling us and it’s something we should be really concerned about.”

The hypothesis is that a lot of these kids got COVID, and they recovered but the damage to their immune system lasted, and now they’re more susceptible to all kinds of nasty viruses: COVID, flu, and RSV. Pre-COVID, they may have been able to fight these infections without hospitalization. Post-COVID, they’re a much more dangerous foe.

Like I said, it’s just a hypothesis and we won’t know for sure for quite some time. But if that is true, it makes this idea of “immunity debt” much more pernicious than you might think. It’s not just a bit of incorrect folk wisdom–it’s propaganda that’s being spread primarily by the same people who argued that masks don’t work, that the vaccines don’t work, that we shouldn’t quarantine or work from home or move schooling online. They’re arguing that the very small efforts we DID make in the US and Canada actually made things WORSE by “weakening our immune system,” when in fact that is absolutely not true and it may be the opposite: all those things worked very well and now that we’ve stopped doing them entirely, our most at-risk friends and family are getting walloped.

So if you see someone spreading the debunked idea of “immunity debt,” don’t fall for it. As we head into winter, just know that there is still a pandemic happening and now we also have a lot of seasonal bugs to worry about. Mask up in public places, get your flu and COVID boosters, wash your hands, and be especially careful if you know you have close contact with children, seniors, and immunocompromised people. I know, I know, you’ve been caring about others for two and a half years and you’re tired, but I guarantee you’re not as tired as the people in the hospital with respiratory infections.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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