Wisconsin Republicans continue push to make employers accept natural immunity in place of vaccines

MADISON, Wis. — A Republican-sponsored bill in the state legislature that would require employers to accept natural immunity to COVID-19 as a substitute for a vaccine or weekly testing mandate got a public hearing Tuesday.

Several of the state’s medical groups like the Wisconsin Medical Society have registered their opposition to the bill, which was introduced late last year among a wave of similar bills in Republican-led states nationwide.

Republicans called on Dr. Aaron Henkel for support — a naturopathic doctor who said he is licensed in the state of Washington. Wisconsin does not recognize licenses for naturopathy, although Henkel and others are pushing a bill to change that.

“I’m not an epidemiologist, I’m not an infectious disease specialist, but I’m happy to answer your questions,” he said during the public hearing. Later, he noted he discourages most of his patients from getting the COVID-19 vaccine, and that part of his support for the bill was driven by patients in his clinic who were upset about losing their jobs, or feared losing their jobs, because of vaccine or weekly testing mandates that they did not want to comply with.

Most health care providers, as well as other types of industries in Wisconsin, have put similar mandates in place in the interests of public safety, amid a pending federal requirement.

“‘It seems to me that this bill is taking our healthcare out of the hands of the medical professionals and putting it into legislators who don’t have a medical background,” cautioned Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) during the hearing.

Epidemiologist and University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor Ajay Sethi said levels and timelines of natural immunity are more inconsistent than vaccines for individuals, depending on how severe their COVID-19 illness was.

“Some people don’t get a lot of protection at all, and those are the people who get mild illness, which is most people,” Sethi explained. “When illness is severe and you survive it, you come away with some protection that can last you a longer period of time. What has been clear though is that when someone is vaccinated, they more reliably get protected immunity and it lasts longer.”

A handful of other Republican states including Arkansas, Florida and West Virginia have already passed similar measures, and others are considering them.

There’s no FDA-authorized test to guarantee an individual won’t get COVID-19 in the future, Sethi noted–including the vaccine itself.

“You can measure antibodies in somebody and get a feel for whether they have any antibodies at all, but to know whether you have the level of protection necessary to protect yourself from getting infected in the future, it’s just not something we have.”

One of the strongest immunities that could prevent future bouts of COVID-19 is natural immunity combined with the vaccine, which provides a level of immunity that’s simply impossible to obtain with either one individually.

“Vaccines are great; the combination of the vaccine in someone who’s had past infection is really going to be enviable levels of immunity moving forward.”

The bill is unlikely to get a signature on Gov. Evers’ desk, who has vetoed other measures by Republicans to limit or control vaccine mandates among private employers.