- Scientists say COVID-19 reinfections are becoming more common.
- They say this isn’t necessarily surprising as the novel coronavirus mutates into variants that are more contagious but less deadly.
- They say the best protection against serious disease from COVID-19 is to be vaccinated.
- They add that long COVID remains a concern with reinfections.
With the arrival of the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 and its even more contagious sub-variants, reinfections with the virus are becoming increasingly common.
That’s not to say that everyone will necessarily get COVID-19 or get it more than once, but reinfection should be seen as part of the tapestry of a “new normal” regarding the virus, experts say.
“Two major factors have combined to make COVID-19 reinfections more likely,” Dr. Jason Lane, the chief medical officer on the Hospital and Community Care Team at ChenMed, told Healthline. “First, the virus keeps evolving into new variants. Some are clearly more likely to escape prior immunity from infection by older variants and vaccines. Second, the immunity protection from prior infections and vaccines has lessened over time.”
Dr. Jerome Adams, a former U.S. Surgeon General, put it more bluntly.
“Because immunity wanes over time, there’s a 100 percent probability that reinfection will be a permanent feature of COVID-19,” he told Healthline. “It’s just like with the flu, which can infect you every year or multiple times per year due to a combination of new variants and waning immunity. The annual flu vaccine is how we instill our immune systems with the knowledge and tools to fight the virus during the flu season. The same is true, and will continue to be true, for COVID-19.”
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t track reinfection data, studies from other countries suggest that reinfections are beginning to dominate the landscape of COVID-19.
One study from the Imperial College London, for example, found that nearly two-thirds of COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom were reported by those surveyed as reinfections.
Despite reinfection among both the vaccinated and unvaccinated becoming more common, experts say vaccines are still one of our best defenses against serious illness and death from COVID-19.
Some of the confusion around this comes from the messaging and our prior expectations of what vaccines do, said Dr. Emily Volk, the president of the College of American Pathologists.
“When the general public thinks about vaccines — when most of us think about vaccines — we think ‘prevent from getting the disease at all,’ right?” she told Healthline. “That I am not going to get measles at all if I am vaccinated for the measles virus. And that is how some vaccines work. However, some vaccines, like the coronavirus vaccine, don’t prevent illness from happening. But it does impact the risk of an illness that is so severe it requires hospitalization.”
The numbers have largely borne this out.
While cases of COVID-19 have been on the rise, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus have not risen at a similar pace, suggesting existing levels of immune protection may be benefitting people overall.
Volk, like many others, has personal experience with this.
“I’ve been vaccinated and boosted to the maximum degree possible at this point, but I too got COVID a few months ago,” she said. “But it was a mild case and I was not hospitalized. I did not require high doses of steroids. I didn’t require a hospital bed or take up a spot in an emergency room.”
“So, I think what we’re experiencing now is very predictable,” she continued. “We’re seeing the virus evolve into a virus that is less dangerous than it was in its original form. And it is, in particular, much less dangerous to people who have been vaccinated.”
While COVID-19 might be becoming milder and immunity in the community more robust, the question of how reinfection impacts post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (PACS), also known as long COVID, remains unsettled.
Long COVID appears as a set of symptoms persisting months after the initial infection has cleared. The symptoms include fatigue, body aches, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating, headache, and loss of taste or smell.
Even less is known about how reinfection factors into long COVID risk.
“Not a lot is known,” said Dr. Kami Kim, an infectious disease specialist at the University of South Florida and Tampa General Hospital. “We don’t really understand who and why people get long COVID. It doesn’t seem to be the severity of the disease.”
“There’s presently no evidence that reinfection makes people more likely to develop the post-COVID symptoms known as long COVID, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions,” he said. “The truth is that every COVID infection or reinfection can potentially lead to long COVID. This is especially true for women, people of middle age, and those suffering from obesity, as well as those who had severe COVID symptoms.”
For now, lessening the risk of reinfection and spreading COVID-19 to others remains the same.
The recommendations include:
- Washing your hands regularly.
- Wearing a mask if you’re feeling sick to prevent spreading the illness to others.
- Taking a test for the virus if you think you might have been exposed.
- Wearing high-quality n95 masks in crowded spaces where community spread is high.
“The best way to limit the risk of reinfection is to continue to treat COVID like what it is: a highly infectious virus,” Adams said.