RALEIGH — An employee of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services who was fired for not getting a COVID vaccine is speaking out.
Kendall Klett, an asbestos inspector and environmental expert, says she received notice of her termination on Friday after a back-and-forth battle with her chain of command at DHHS over her vaccine status and the department’s testing requirements. Klett provided studies that argue her 2020 COVID infection provides natural immunity equal to or greater than that of a synthetic vaccine, and she does not pose a risk to others.
DHHS announced in October that any employee not vaccinated by the end of the year would be subject to weekly COVID testing and masking. If they refuse, a five-day suspension without pay would be imposed, and then termination of their employment would follow. The agency’s policy does not address the natural immunity patients get from a COVID infection.
“They were very blind to it,” she said. “It was just about me not complying. I must have had two or three meetings with people, and they would not even mention natural immunity. I would go on at length about it, and they wouldn’t even say the words ‘natural immunity.’”
Klett was infected with COVID in October 2020 with mild symptoms. Having personally experienced COVID, and having a master’s degree in environmental and occupation health science, she was especially tuned in to studies on the effectiveness and durability of natural immunity from prior infections, before making the decision not to take the vaccine.
“That just doesn’t make any sense to me,” she said. “They don’t talk about the side effects. Granted there aren’t a lot of side effects, but I don’t know how good the reporting is. Why take the chance if I don’t need it and science shows that I don’t need it?”
Vaccination versus natural immunity
The durability of natural immunity is a point made by many who’ve been infected, but largely avoided by public health officials who are working to get the public vaccinated. Gov. Roy Cooper and outgoing DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen have repeatedly called COVID the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” but the policy treats those with natural immunity from an infection the same as the unvaccinated.
The state’s own COVID data show that North Carolinians who have had previous COVID infection suffer reinfection at an overall rate over nearly two years of 0.8%, compared to the post-vaccination infection rate of more than 1.7%. An analysis of that data by Jon Sanders, senior fellow in regulatory studies and research editor at the John Locke Foundation, the parent organization of Carolina Journal, is available here.
“The governor and state health bureaucrats have constantly defended their decisions throughout the state’s mandate-heavy COVID reactions as ‘following the science,’” said Sanders. “The assertion has always been highly questionable, but especially so in this particular case. There is a formidable body of research attesting to robust natural immunity to COVID following infection, stronger or at the very least the equivalent of vaccine-induced immunity.”
As of press time, DHHS has not responded to Carolina Journal’s request for an interview on Klett’s termination or the department’s policy. However, a link in the Frequently Asked Questions section of the state’s COVID dashboard sends readers interested in natural immunity to a study done in Kentucky concluding that of people who’d been infected with COVID, those who did not get an additional vaccine were 2.38 times more likely to become infected than those who got a vaccine. The entire group of patients in the study had prior COVID infections, so it did not measure vaccinated patients against naturally immune patients, only those who got a vaccine after a positive test, compared to those who did not.
Klett says the findings were based on too small a sample of people (246) and conducted toward the beginning of COVID vaccinations, making it not relevant to her case today as the durability of vaccines wanes and natural immunity is not yet well-examined. For example, she says there is evidence that immune memory in B-cells of patients who’ve had COVID is more lasting than the presence of antibodies in T-cells, which are more prevalent in vaccinated patients.
“This is not about immune and not immune, which should be the question, because you can derive immunity from the vaccine for a period of time and from natural immunity, but they don’t look at it like that,” she said. “You are just vaccinated or unvaccinated. … I’m unvaccinated, but it does not mean I’m unprotected.”
Are public health officials tracking natural immunity?
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not seem to be tracking the data on natural immunity either. A Freedom of Information Act request from Manhattan attorney Elizabeth Brehn last month asked the health advisory agency to provide her with any documentation of a patient who did not receive a COVID vaccine, was infected, and once recovered became infected again and spread the infection to someone else.
In a letter back to Brehm, the CDC wrote, “A search of our records failed to reveal any documents pertaining to your request.”
For Klett, this lack of evidence brings into question the state’s assertion that those with natural immunity, not a vaccine, risk spreading the virus to others.
“If the state’s interest is what we’re led to believe it is, public health, then that interest is satisfied if someone has natural immunity to COVID-19,” said Sanders. “Forcing someone with immunity acquired by prior infection to receive a vaccination leaves that person open to risks of adverse reactions with no offsetting benefit. On the other hand, if the state’s interest is merely to force compliance to executive edicts rather than laws passed by the legislature, then there is only one way to satisfy it, but is that the kind of state we thought we lived in?”
A study published in The Lancet on Nov. 27 found that COVID vaccines, on average, drop in efficacy by 18% between one and six months after administration. In elderly people, efficacy drops by 20% within six months, hence the recent calls by public health officials for a booster shot. The study found that Moderna and Pfizer had steeper drop-offs in effectiveness, while Johnson and Johnson’s one-shot had a lower initial effectiveness but seems to maintain better than the others over time.
In an effort to keep her job, Klett provided DHHS, and Carolina Journal, with these and dozens more studies from around the globe that found natural immunity to be between 98% and 99% effective and durable against COVID infection.
“To put another vaccine on top of that, for another, what 1%? When I’m only going to get a mild cold anyway at worst, and probably nothing at all,” she said. “It’s not a very compelling argument.”
ADA laws on testing in the workplace
Klett is filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, charging that DHHS has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act regarding the medical testing of employees. The state’s COVID policy requires only unvaccinated employees to get weekly COVID testing.
“If you are only requiring some of your employees, not all of your employees to get medical testing, you must conduct individual assessments and prove that you have a reasonable belief supported by the most current medical studies that the employee is a danger to the workplace,” she said of the ADA law. “That’s a pretty high bar.”
Klett is not alone in challenging her employer over vaccine mandates and natural immunity. Professor Todd Zywicki at George Mason University challenged the school’s mandatory vaccine policy with a lawsuit and was reinstated in his position, with his employer accepting natural immunity, rather than a vaccine. Lehigh Valley Healthcare in Pennsylvania similarly decided to accept employees’ immunity from a prior infection as an alternative to vaccination.
Klett was told by a supervisor that she was one of three of more than 10,000 DHHS employees pushing back on the vaccine mandate based on their own prior infection, and natural immunity. She is the only one she knows of to actually be fired.
Today, in addition to wanting her job back, Klett wants DHHS to change its policy and consider the science of natural immunity as more is learned about COVID and the vaccine process.