UF experts dispute COVID comments at Newberry rally

UF Health experts are disputing COVID-19 statements made at a Monday event in Newberry featuring Gov. Ron DeSantis and other elected officials.

At the event held at Clarke Plantation, more than 250 people—including Republican state representatives, elected officials, City of Gainesville employees and residents—gathered to rally against vaccine mandates at the local, state and federal levels.

DeSantis invited city employees to speak about facing termination if they don’t get the COVID-19 vaccine. Most of them talked about personal freedom, but GRU employee Darris Friend said: “The vaccine changes your RNA, for me that’s a problem.”

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Dr. Michael Lauzardo, director of UF Health’s Screen, Test and Protect Program, said that is not the case.

“There is no evidence whatsoever that the vaccine damages or affects our RNA or DNA in any way, shape or form,” he said in a phone interview with Mainstreet Daily News.

Darris Friend speaks at press conference

Friend’s comment drew reaction from viewers on social media and other elected officials. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is running for governor, called out DeSantis for not correcting the record.

“The vaccine does ***NOT*** change your RNA @GovRonDeSantis,” she wrote in a tweet. “It does not. No correction. No shame.”

Fried included a link to the CDC’s information page on mRNA vaccines

Another claim that drew scrutiny came from Gainesville Fire Rescue paramedic Jonathan Cicio, who said many first responders “have natural immunity because of exposure.” DeSantis echoed the same position, saying those who have recovered from COVID have “very strong immunity.” 

But Dr. Kartik Cherabuddi, an associate professor of infectious diseases at UF, said that is not the case for very long. 

“After having a natural infection, immunity lasts for about eight weeks, and in some people a little bit longer, but certainly not a year,” Cherabuddi said in a phone interview.

He cited a Kentucky study that explored COVID-19 reinfection.

“This report details the findings of a case-control evaluation of the association between vaccination and SARS-CoV-2 reinfection in Kentucky during May–June 2021 among persons previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 in 2020,” she said. “Kentucky residents who were not vaccinated had 2.34 times the odds of reinfection compared with those who were fully vaccinated (odds ratio [OR] = 2.34; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.58–3.47). These findings suggest that among persons with previous SARS-CoV-2 infection, full vaccination provides additional protection against reinfection. To reduce their risk of infection, all eligible persons should be offered vaccination, even if they have been previously infected with SARS-CoV-2.”

In his practice at UF Health, Cherabuddi said he sees patients and knows of health care workers who have been infected more than once—some with severe cases. 

“We know if you had a COVID-19 infection in the past, that getting a dose of vaccine boosts your immunity,” he said, noting that it is referred to as hybrid immunity, a combination of natural and vaccine induced antibodies. “That is the best way to protect yourself.”

Cherabuddi said people who contract and recover from COVID-19 have short-time protection, “which is why we ask people to wait four to six or up to eight weeks to receive the vaccine.”

Cherabuddi noted that he has seen two cases now of a person being infected for a third time.

“What we know for sure is even health care providers have gotten a second episode of infection,” he said.

Cherabuddi added that because scientists have more evidence of how the vaccine protects against severe COVID-19 than the monoclonal antibody treatment, he worries that people are relying on the monoclonal treatment and avoiding the vaccine.

“People are willing to take a synthesized antibody which has a 70 percent chance at best for preventing hospitalization only if it is taken after the first few days of becoming positive, instead of a vaccine that is above 90 percent effective in preventing severe illness.

Cherabuddi warns that it is very difficult to know you have COVID-19 for just two days and be able to get the monoclonal antibody treatment in time for it to be effective.

“In the real world, this doesn’t happen in a few days,” he said. “This block of folks who had a natural infection and say they will take the chance, unfortunately, we see them in the hospital sicker now, asking for the monoclonal treatment.”

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