COVID-19 Reinfections Are Common—And They Aren’t Harmless
By now, you may know—or be—someone who has had COVID-19 two, three, or even four times. Omicron and its subvariants, which are highly contagious and contain mutations that may allow them to evade the body’s vaccine- and infection-acquired immune defenses, have made reinfections an unfortunate but common part of life.
Experts are concerned that BA.5, currently responsible for most cases in the U.S.A, could be especially susceptible to reinfections even among those who have not had this virus since a while. Scientists also have concerns regarding BA.2.75, another transmissible Omicron variant, that has been spreading rapidly in certain parts of the world (including India), but is not responsible for a substantial percentage of new cases here in the U.S.
Is it worth worrying about reinfections? Here’s what we know so far.
Your chances of getting sick again are less than the ones you had before.
You should have had experience with SARS/CoV-2 virus treatment. Your body will be more prepared for the next round.
After being vaccinated or having COVID-19, the body develops an immune response. According to Dr. Jeffrey Cohen (chief of the laboratory of infectious diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), these defenses greatly reduce the chance of you getting sick again. Immunocompromised people may have a weak immune system, making them vulnerable to serious complications even after they are vaccinated or exposed.
But getting infected is not a guarantee that you won’t get sick again in the future, especially with BA.5 and other Omicron relatives circulating globally.
According to Omicron’s study, triple-vaccinated and previously infected healthcare workers experienced almost no immunity benefits after they were reinfected with Omicron. Science It was June. In other words, their immunity didn’t exceed what they had already generated from vaccines and prior infections. People who’d been fully vaccinated but never infected did get a bit of a boost.
An additional study has been published in Nature In May, it was discovered that Omicron infected people who were not vaccinated had little protection.
“Getting an Omicron infection is not a good way of boosting your immune response,” says Rosemary Boyton, co-author of the Science studying and is now a professor at Imperial College London in immunology and respiratory medicine. Her study showed that infections during the first Omicron wave are “not necessarily protecting you against BA.4 and BA.5 and the subsequent strains. That may be why we’re seeing people getting frequent breakthrough infections and reinfections.”
Even mild diseases are susceptible to infection
Are mild reinfections likely? This is possible. A study posted online in June as a preprint (meaning it had not yet been peer-reviewed) found that reinfection adds “non-trivial risks” of death, hospitalization, and post-COVID health conditions, on top of those accumulated from an initial SARS-CoV-2 infection. SARS/CoV-2 infections have been shown to be linked to organ failure, cardiac disease, neurologic disorders, diabetes and many other conditions.
Ziyad Al-Aly is a co-author of the study and an assistant professor at Washington University School of Medicine. Al-Aly states that more infections can lead to additional complications. Although they may not be as severe as a first infection’s, the risks can build up and become more serious over time. “If your risk was X,” after a first infection, after the second one “it’s X plus Y,” he explains.
Even if a reinfection doesn’t make you very sick right away, it could increase your chances of developing chronic post-COVID health issues, the paper suggests.
“Second infections are less likely [than first infections] to be severe,” Cohen says. “But there can be damage even from that second infection.”
After a reinfection, you can obtain Long COVID
One of the greatest risks to infection is long COVID. This can occur even in fully-vaccinated individuals with mild COVID-19. Federal data shows that approximately one-fifth of COVID-19 patients will suffer from long COVID symptoms. This can be fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, chronic and other problems.
Cohen says it’s not clear yet whether someone is more or less likely to develop Long COVID after a second infection compared to their first, but there have been documented cases of people developing long-haul symptoms after a reinfection. “It certainly is possible,” Cohen says, but there’s not yet enough data to say how common that outcome is.
“You’re almost rolling the dice again,” Al-Aly says. “You may have been one of the lucky ones initially…but it doesn’t really mean that’s going to happen every time.”
Can reinfections be avoided?
COVID-19 infection is something you want to avoid. Strategies include wearing high-quality masks indoors, improving ventilation and staying up to date on your vaccinations.
But realistically, without comprehensive public-health strategies in place, and with variants like BA.5 causing new waves of disease, avoiding COVID-19 in the Omicron era is difficult for an individual to do without “living in a bubble,” Al-Aly says.
Cohen said that the reality of current and future viruses is why it’s important to create new vaccines. Many experts also believe that nasal vaccines could be a good option to slow down the transmission of viruses by building immunity reservoirs in areas where they are most likely to enter the body. These products are in the development phase, but they have not been released for general distribution.
Reducing the number of reinfections is necessary not only for individuals’ health but also for public health, Boyton says. Medically vulnerable and immunocompromised people won’t be safe as long as the virus is spreading widely, and everyone is at risk if it continues to mutate as it repeatedly infects large chunks of the population. “There is a danger that if you allow a virus to circulate in a vaccinated population at high transmission levels,” she says, “that it can then further mutate into something that is more pathogenic.”
In Boyton’s opinion, the benefits of reducing transmission are great enough to justify continuing public-health measures like masking on public transportation. Policymakers and individuals, she says, should be motivated to slow the virus’ spread as much as possible.
“It’s not a trivial illness to catch, even if you don’t get hospitalized or die,” she says.
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