Do COVID-19 safety protocols affect the immune system?

Published: Apr. 19, 2021 at 7:06 PM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - With more people getting their COVID-19 vaccine every day, they may be able to ditch their masks soon. However, have COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including masking, social distancing, hand hygiene and consistently cleaning surfaces, hurt people’s immune systems since they are taking in fewer germs?

According to Ken Johnson, Prevea Health’s Chief Medical Officer, the answer is no.

“The body has a long-term memory for its immune system,” he said. “So the fact that it was exposed to less germs or viruses in the one-to-two years of COVID will not decrease its ability to fight off germs when we stop wearing masks.”

Dana Bessen, a nurse practitioner with Marshfield Clinic in Cadott, said people have been taking in germs despite masking up during the pandemic.

“We certainly don’t live in any sterile environment,” she said. “So even about our daily activities in our homes and our offices we’re exposed to different germs and bacteria.”

That doesn’t mean people’s immune systems haven’t weakened during the pandemic. Both Johnson and Bessen said other factors, like stress and lack of sleep impact the immune system’s ability to work at its best.

“Some of the stress from the pandemic may cause temporary decrease in your immune system but as the stress goes away the immune system may return back to normal,” Johnson said.

“Some things we can do to try to maintain our immune system is maintain healthy habits,” Bessen said.

Johnson does believe we are more likely to see more people coming down with a cold or the flu than right now but that’s not because their immune systems aren’t working.

“Right now we are seeing very little influenza or viral infections because people are being very careful about masking, distancing and cleaning their hands so those are not circulating in our community. But as we stop doing those things, then we would anticipate the rate we would normally see for those types of illness would go back to where it was before COVID,” he said.

Johnson said there are studies showing infants who are exposed to more germs may get fewer allergies later in life. It has no impact on adults’ immunity.

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