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Clara Hendrickson
By Clara Hendrickson August 18, 2021

Mich. lawmaker falsely claims previous infection protects him from COVID-19 ‘forever’

If Your Time is short

  • Research is ongoing, but there is no conclusive evidence to support Shirkey’s assertion that he is indefinitely protected from the disease by having been infected.

  • Research has consistently found that getting vaccinated boosts the immune response to COVID-19 among those previously infected.

Michigan’s Senate GOP leader Mike Shirkey voiced his frustration with a vaccine mandate that will be in place during a major policy conference in the resort town of Mackinac Island in September. While Shirkey said he plans to be on Mackinac during the conference, he said he can’t participate in it because he refuses to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Shirkey said he doesn’t need to get vaccinated because he was previously infected with COVID-19.

"I don’t need it. I have natural immunity," Shirkey said in an interview Aug. 16 with Jackson TV, a local channel in his hometown. And that protection lasts "forever," Shirkey said in response to a question from JTV host Bart Hawley.

Challenged by Hawley on that point, Shirkey acknowledged that the research is inconclusive, but then said, "there’s strong evidence to suggest it’s lifelong."

Shirkey’s comment ignores the fact that reinfections do happen among unvaccinated individuals who have recovered from COVID-19. And his comment contradicts the recommendation of health experts who say that the vaccines offer greater protection from reinfection than any immunity developed from a previous COVID-19 infection.

This is not the first time Shirkey has made misleading claims about the coronavirus. Shirkey suggested in early May that Michigan had achieved herd immunity by virtue of the vaccinated population and those previously infected with COVID-19. Medical experts disputed Shirkey’s math, which was based on a rough calculation of likely COVID-19 cases, and they said the state was far from reaching the level of vaccination needed to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Shirkey’s infection and natural immunity

Shirkey was infected with COVID-19 in December 2020. He appeared on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives two days before Dec. 23, when his spokesperson said he tested positive for COVID-19. Footage of the Dec. 21 proceedings shows him removing his mask at times and interacting with others.

He disclosed the infection in mid-January, and described his case as "mild" during a January interview.

Research into how long natural immunity lasts is ongoing, but findings to date do not support Shirkey’s assertion that he has lifelong immunity that offers the same level of protection as the vaccine.

People who have had COVID-19 are known to develop some immunity, but experts don’t know how long that immunity lasts. One study published in Science in February found that immunity can last up to eight months after infection. Another study published in Nature in June found protection remained strong for up to a year. That same study also found that vaccination strongly boosts the immune system’s response to the virus.

A study published in Nature in May 2021 found that individuals infected with COVID-19 could produce antibodies throughout their lives. But Dr. Ali Ellebedy, an associate professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis who led the study, said those previously infected "should definitely get vaccinated." He said during a May interview with WBUR that antibodies against COVID-19 from natural immunity may not offer sufficient protection against reinfection, especially in the face of new variants.

Featured Fact-check

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that those who have been previously infected with COVID-19 get vaccinated. The recommendation was bolstered by a recent CDC study out of Kentucky that found that vaccination offers significantly greater protection against reinfection than natural immunity.

Those who were unvaccinated were more than twice as likely to be reinfected than those who were fully vaccinated, the study found.

New risks from virus variants

Health experts say that with new strains of the virus circulating, getting vaccinated is all the more important.

"Your natural infection will provide protection against whatever (strain) you were naturally infected with, but now there's a different virus circulating," Dr. Paul Offit, chair of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told PolitiFact. "So by getting a vaccine, you'll have a broader immune response to a more diverse population of SARS-CoV-2 viruses."

As the delta variant has led to a spike in COVID-19 cases, the CDC has continued to urge more Americans to get vaccinated, including those previously infected with COVID-19.

"If you have had COVID-19 before, please still get vaccinated," said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in response to research showing that people who have recovered from COVID-19 face significantly greater risk of reinfection if they’re unvaccinated. "Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others around you, especially as the more contagious delta variant spreads around the country."

A spokesperson for Shirkey didn’t say what evidence he was citing for his claim of lifelong protection, but said he objected to a policy that emphasized proof of vaccination rather than proof of immunity.

"The focus should be on an individual’s antibodies to the virus, not just whether they had a vaccine," Shirkey’s chief of staff Jeremy Hendges told PolitiFact, adding: "There are obviously questions about how long the vaccines are effective."

Our ruling

Shirkey claimed that he does not need to get vaccinated because the "natural immunity" from his previous COVID-19 infection lasts "forever."

While one study found that those previously infected with COVID-19 may produce antibodies throughout their lives, the study’s lead author still recommended getting vaccinated because there is no conclusive evidence that natural immunity provides the same level of protection of the vaccines, especially in the face of new variants.

Public health experts have found that getting vaccinated strongly enhances the immune response to COVID-19 among those previously infected.

We rate Shirkey’s claim False.

PolitiFact reporter Jason Asenso contributed to this piece. 

Our Sources

Jackson TV, "Sen. Shirkey on Vaccine and Mask Mandates; Herd Immunity Solution to Pandemic," 8/16/21

CDC, FAQ: "If I have already had COVID-19 and recovered, do I still need to get vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine?", updated 8/11/21

PolitiFact, "Here’s why experts say people who had COVID-19 should be vaccinated," 7/27/21

Detroit Free Press, "Michigan GOP leader skipping Mackinac policy conference because of vaccine mandate," 8/10/21

CDC, "New CDC Study: Vaccination Offers Higher Protection than Previous COVID-19 Infection," 8/6/21 

USA Today, "Fact check: Infected with COVID-19 in the past? You still need the vaccine, experts say," 8/13/21 

Science, "Immunological memory to SARS-CoV-2 assessed for up to 8 months after infection," 2/5/21

Nature, "Naturally enhanced neutralizing breadth against SARS-CoV-2 one year after infection," 6/14/21

CDC, "Reduced Risk of Reinfection with SARS-CoV-2 After COVID-19 Vaccination – Kentucky, May-June 2021," 8/13/21

Yale Medicine, "5 Things To Know About the Delta Variant," 8/13/21 

CDC, "Delta Variant," updated 8/6/21 

Detroit Free Press, "Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey confirms he had COVID-19 in December," 1/13/21 

Jackson TV, "Senator Shirkey on Capitol Security; Governor’s COVID Response," 1/18/21 

Nature, "SARS-CoV-2 infection induces long-lived bone marrow plasma cells in humans," 5/24/21 

Nature, "Had COVID? You’ll probably make antibodies for a lifetime," 5/24/21

Emory University, "COVID-19 survivors may possess wide-ranging resistance to the disease," 7/22/21

MLive, "Fact check: Mike Shirkey misuses health data in push for end to COVID-19 restrictions," 5/3/21

Jeremy Hendges, Sen. Shirkey Chief of Staff, email, 8/17/21 

WBUR, "COVID-19 Immunity May Last A Lifetime After Vaccine Or Prior Infection, New Study Finds," 5/27/21 

Detroit Free Press, "Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey confirms he had COVID-19 in December," 1/13/21

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Mich. lawmaker falsely claims previous infection protects him from COVID-19 ‘forever’

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