Republican Congresswoman Nancy Mace sent out mixed messages on Covid-19 on Sunday night as she veered between extolling the benefits of “natural immunity” to the virus on one network and encouraging people to get vaccinated on another.
Speaking on Fox News, the South Carolina representative cast doubt on the idea that vaccines would be the way to fend off the omicron variant and chart a way back to something like safe normal life, instead speculating that allowing infections to some extent might do more to help stop a surge of hospitalisations and deaths.
“One of the things the CDC has not done and that no policymaker at the federal level has done so far,” she claimed, “is taking into account what natural immunity does, and that may be what we’re seeing in Florida today,” she declared, referring to declining case rates in the sunshine state after a torrid summer and autumn that saw record numbers.
“In some studies that I have read, natural immunity gives you 27 times more protection against future Covid infection than a vaccination. So we need to take all of the science into account and not selectively choosing what science to follow when we’re making policy decisions. And you’re seeing I believe [Florida] Governor DeSantis’s, seeing the fruit of that labour today.”
But on CNN not long afterwards, Ms Mace took a different tack, boasting of how she has consistently advised her constituents to take measures that will help them avoid infection – and by implication keep them from developing “natural immunity”.
“I’ve been a proponent of vaccination and wearing masks when we need to,” she said. “We had the delta variant raging in South Carolina and I wrote an op-ed to my community. And I work with my state Department of Health; I run ads urging my district to go and get vaccinated and when we have these variants and we have these spikes to take every precaution from washing our hands to wearing our N95 or KN95 masks – more than the medical masks – there is a statistically significant number of people who are protected from Covid when they wear those masks.”
This may fly in the face of the argument she made on Fox News, but it also sets her apart from much of the mainstream of the Republican Party, many of whose leaders – Governor DeSantis included – have openly mocked masks, resisted vaccine mandates, and even slapped fines on businesses that require mask-wearing or proof of vaccination among employees and patrons.
The congresswoman did her media round in the aftermath of the announcement of the omicron variant, a much-mutated version of Covid-19 that shows signs of being extremely transmissible. Its implications for the future of the pandemic will not be clear for at least a fortnight until scientists have studied it and ascertained whether and to what extent it will be able to evade vaccines.
Countries around the world are putting in place travel bans to keep out people from South Africa and other southern African countries where the variant was first detected, but cases have already been found in countries from the UK to Israel Hong Kong to Canada. The World Health Organization has warned that the variant poses a high risk of global Covid-19 surges in under-vaccinated populations.
Against this backdrop, numerous countries are accelerating or expanding their vaccination programmes to reach as many people as quickly as possible. In the US, however, the politics of vaccination remain heavily polarised, with top right-wing pundits and politicians still focused on opposing Democratic- and CDC-backed mandates.
It is in this context that “natural immunity” has become a Republican talking point, offering a counterpoint to the idea that vaccination at the government’s behest is the primary tool with which to fight the pandemic.
While Ms Mace cited research that claimed natural immunity might be more powerful than vaccines, she did not give a full description of the scientific picture – which shows that while post-infection immunity naturally provides some protection, that defence alone both is weaker and wanes faster than the protection vaccines provide.
More than that, the risks posed by a Covid-19 infection are dramatically higher for the vaccinated than the unvaccinated, meaning that allowing the virus to spread as a method of raising “herd immunity” is far more dangerous than mass inoculation.
Congresswoman Mace’s office has been contacted for comment.
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