Roger Marshall uses natural immunity to push back on vaccine mandates

Roger Marshall, physician turned U.S. Senator, is waging a battle in Congress against vaccine mandates.

Last week, he signed onto an effort to overturn the new rule issued by President Joe Biden’s administration requiring most private employers to have their workers vaccinated or tested weekly by Jan. 4. He pledged not to vote on a bill to fund the government unless it contains a provision that would nullify the mandate. He filed an amendment to guarantee that anyone who doesn’t comply with the military’s vaccine mandate must be honorably discharged.

Marshall is vaccinated and he recommends that people do the same. But in fighting mandates, Marshall has repeatedly raised the concept of “natural immunity” —immunity that results from being infected with the virus— as a reason why people should be able to turn down the vaccine.

He’s among many Republicans in Congress pushing the Centers for Disease Control to relax vaccination rules for those who have already been sick. That includes exempting them from the White House workplace mandate.

Last week, the CDC released a report that found vaccines provide more reliable protection against COVID-19 than immunity from a previous COVID-19 infection, but that both vaccine immunity and natural immunity can last for at least six months.

The agency also said there is strong evidence that getting the vaccine after being infected enhances protections against reinfection. That supports the blanket recommendation that everyone who is eligible should be vaccinated regardless of whether they’ve been infected.

The report was based on “peer-reviewed and preprint publications” and unpublished CDC data.

During his press conference about the honorable discharge amendment, Marshall dismissed the report, but did not offer specifics about flaws in the study.

“It was one of the worst quality studies that I’ve seen in my life, I can’t believe they’ve printed it,” Marshall said. “I’m begging the CDC to recognize natural immunity.”

Later that day, he questioned Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, during a meeting of the U.S. Senate Committee of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He asked Walensky whether she was convinced getting vaccinated provides better immunity than getting infected.

Walensky explained using a medical term — correlates of protection — that it’s easier to track immunity in people who have been vaccinated than in people who were naturally infected, in part because scientists are still studying how immunity varies based on the severity of the original infection.

Marshall cut her off to ask Dr. Anthony Fauci a question about viral gain of function research, before he ran out of time.

As businesses have started to implement vaccine requirements — either for employees or, in the case of restaurants and bars in big cities, for customers — the CDC report pointed out that there is still no test that can measure whether someone is protected from being infected with COVID-19.

The argument over the vaccine mandate in Congress, and whether immunity from previous infections should be recognized by the CDC, comes as COVID-19 has continued to spread rapidly in rural communities like those in Kansas.

Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said the most effective way to get people vaccinated has been through the recommendation of their family physician, not from politicians arguing about the different types of immunity in Congress.

“We’ve taken an approach where federal authorities are telling rural Americans what to do and that just doesn’t work very well,” Morgan said. “We really need to talk about what’s important for our community, what do we need to keep our businesses open and our healthcare workers safe.”

Morgan pointed out that someone who lives in a small town is more than twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than someone in an urban area, and that rural vaccination rates are 10 percent lower than in cities.

“This virus is still a problem nationally in rural areas,” Morgan said. “We’re still seeing emerging hot spots nationally in rural communities and I think there’s a danger that we’re going to lose focus that rural towns are at higher risk for COVID than urban communities and I think there needs to be a focus on these small towns and the communities.”

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