No, you can’t be ‘so healthy’ that you’re naturally immune to COVID

Eighteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we imagine you’ve heard this one before: To avoid getting COVID, what you really need to do is eat healthy food, exercise and get plenty of sunshine.

As the highly contagious delta variant begins to infect more young and healthy people, a screenshot of a tweet circulated widely on Instagram and revived this harmful misconception.

Like a lot of popular misinformation, the claim springs from a kernel of truth: Healthier individuals do usually have better outcomes if they get infected with COVID-19. But no amount of healthy living is a substitute for scientifically-proven disease prevention measures.

In short: Fruits and veggies are great, get your exercise — but neither are a substitute for a safe and effective vaccine.

Here are the facts:

CLAIM: The best way to avoid COVID-19 altogether is to exercise, eat healthy and let your immune system beat it naturally.

THE FACTS: A screenshot of a tweet circulating widely on Instagram this week revived a harmful misconception that has proved pervasive throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: the false claim that letting your immune system fight the virus is safer than getting vaccinated.

“The best way to avoid COVID altogether is to exercise, eat healthy and let your immune system beat it naturally,” the post reads. “The lazy way is to do none of the above and just let strangers stick an emergency cocktail in your arm countless times because some short guy on your TV told you to.”

In reality, while being overweight or having chronic health conditions can increase your chances of suffering from COVID-19 complications, no combination of exercise or healthy food can shield you from becoming seriously ill or dying if you get the virus, experts say.

Vaccination, on the other hand, provides robust protection from serious illness or death. “Many very healthy people can and do get severe COVID,” said Dr. Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy at Arizona State University. “In general, immunity from vaccination is stronger and more reliable than just recovering from a natural infection with the virus.”

People who get COVID-19 also risk developing long-term symptoms that researchers are still working to understand, Columbia University Center for Infection and Immunity Director Dr. W. Ian Lipkin added.

While breakthrough cases do occur in a small percentage of vaccinated people, studies show the vaccines are very good at reducing the severity of the illness. As COVID-19 infections surge due to the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, vaccines have continued to offer strong protection.

Ongoing research also suggests immunity from vaccines may outlast immunity from many COVID-19 cases, according to Sabra Klein, a microbiologist and immunologist at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Especially among those that have mild disease (not hospitalized) or are asymptomatic, immunity wanes within 6 months,” Klein said. “So far, it is apparent that immunity following vaccination lasts longer.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people get vaccinated even if they have already been infected with COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the vaccines available in the U.S. after clinical trials involving tens of thousands of people showed the shots were safe and effective.

— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in Seattle contributed this report.