The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a letter to the editor, a man said his relative ‘is past’ covid and ‘completely immune.’ Then came the twist.

3 min

Over the years, Charles Chamberlain has fired off dozens of letters to the editor of his local newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. The Spring Hill, Fla., man has pontificated on oil prices, Social Security and the influence of money in politics. He has railed against former president Donald Trump’s false election fraud claims and the “cold, calculating and cynical” ethics of herd immunity.

Chamberlain, 81, is no fan of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who he said has sacrificed public health for partisan politics amid a pandemic that has killed more than 54,000 Floridians. So when DeSantis appointed Joseph Ladapo — a controversial physician who has questioned the safety of the coronavirus vaccines — to serve as the state’s new surgeon general, Chamberlain was, naturally, peeved.

Nevertheless, he was interested in what Ladapo had to say about natural immunity, particularly the surgeon general’s comment that a previous coronavirus infection “protects people from getting very ill and also protects people from being infected again.”

Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Gypsyamber D'Souza explains how the U.S. can reach coronavirus herd immunity and what happens if that goal is missed. (Video: Brian Monroe, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

So Chamberlain cast off another letter to the Times.

“Florida’s new surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, is spot-on with his observation that the best form of prevention from COVID-19 is for persons to have an infection because this will provide the best immunity,” Chamberlain wrote. “I am aware that he is correct because of a recent experience with a member of my family. He had a severe infection from COVID-19. He is past that now and is completely immune — not only for COVID-19 but flu and other respiratory infections as well.”

Chamberlain concluded that “Dr. Ladapo’s recommendation works.” Then, he ended the letter with an absurdist twist: “Of course we are burying this family member next week.”

The letter, which was published Sept. 23, quickly gained traction online, including in one tweet that amassed more than 4,300 retweets and 21,000 likes.

“This may be the only newspaper letter to the editor worth reading until the end,” one person remarked.

Chamberlain told The Washington Post he thought the twist “was fairly nice.”

“I was surprised they published the letter. I thought it was pretty snarky,” he said.

The relative mentioned in his letter is his son’s 71-year-old father-in-law, whom Chamberlain has known for nearly 30 years. The man, a retired corrections officer, became sick with the coronavirus in early August and died of covid on Sept. 19. Chamberlain believes he was vaccinated.

“This is a man for whom I had enormous respect. Just a wonderful guy, hard-working, honest as the day is long, active in his church. A wonderful father and grandfather,” Chamberlain said. “For him to get sick and die like this when he had been careful and still wasn’t able to avoid it because of the carelessness of others, it’s heartbreaking.”

With more than 43 million cases of the coronavirus reported in the United States to date, public discussions on natural immunity have been pushed to the forefront. Preliminary studies show that people who have recovered from covid-19 gain strong protection against future infections, a PolitiFact fact check concluded, although contracting the virus puts unvaccinated people at a higher risk of severe illness or death.

But many politicians and public figures, particularly conservatives, have been touting the benefits of natural immunity in recent weeks. A state senator in Arkansas has filed a bill to grant those who have contracted the virus the same privileges as those who have been vaccinated. In Florida, DeSantis and his surgeon general have also spoken publicly about the protection offered by natural immunity.

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Chamberlain, however, believes those statements by Florida’s leaders show a disregard for the people who will become infected and die.

“Well yeah, that’s a way of curing people, but the problem is fatalities,” he said.

The Florida Department of Health, which Ladapo leads, did not respond to an email from The Post seeking comment on Chamberlain’s letter.

When it comes to his own health, Chamberlain said he does what he can to keep himself safe. He was vaccinated as soon as he was able. He continues to wear his mask in public. He made sure to get a flu shot, just as he does every year.

But he bemoans what he sees as a lack of caution in the general public as the virus continues to spread. In the case of his son’s father-in-law, who paid the price, “it’s just infuriating.”

“We are responsible for one another, and I think that used to be an American value,” he said. ” … That was just simply expected and that’s how you lived with people, and that seems to have evaporated among some.”