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Experts Know Very Little About COVID Reinfection, Including Long-Term Health Effects

Here’s what to know about your risk as cases continue to rise.

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There are still areas of the country where the pandemic has not ended, even if life there appears to be normal. The recent nationwide outbreak of COVID-19 has been traced to a novel coronavirus subtype, omicron BA.5. Some people who have avoided the virus for years are now reporting their first infection, while others who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past are now testing positive again. As a rule of thumb, a “reinfection” is considered to have occurred when a second confirmed case of COVID occurs within 90 days of the initial infection.

A common theory among experts at the height of the pandemic was that having COVID-19 could provide some natural immunity that would prevent a person from becoming ill again, at least temporarily. People who are more susceptible to severe side effects may experience life-threatening complications from the virus even after a single bout of illness, and the consequences of this “natural” immunity were poorly understood and thought to be very risky even back then.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that the subvariant responsible for roughly 80% of all COVID cases in the country at the moment is BA.5. This finding lends credence to the belief that BA.5 is highly contagious. It’s not entirely clear what this means in terms of re-infection. Experts still lack a complete picture of the health risks associated with having COVID over and over again, but it is possible that a second (or even third) illness may not always cause more severe symptoms for every person. This is the current state of affairs.

What is the prevalence of reinfection with COVID-19?

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This question, alas, defies a simple yes or no answer. The Mayo Clinic’s infectious disease specialist Dr. Abinash Virk tells SELF. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitors national rates of COVID-19 infection, but the data does not distinguish between new and recurrent infections. Infections confirmed by at-home COVID tests or cases that are never officially diagnosed and, thus, never reported are not accounted for in the reinfection rates that some states may track.

Due to people conducting their own tests at home or not testing at all, “we don’t know the true magnitude of current infections,” Dr. Virk says. According to her anecdotal evidence, however, experts are hearing more reports of reinfection now than they did during the delta wave in 2021.

Visiting the website of your state’s department of health may give you some insight into the prevalence of COVID reinfection in your area. For instance, the New York State Department of Health reports that during the first week of July, the state’s reinfection rate was 5.2 per 100,000 cases.

Subvariants of omicron are known to be notorious shapeshifters. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus with spike proteins on its surface, which are essential for the virus to infect human cells. The National Institutes of Health reports that the COVID-19 spikes are neutralized by antibodies developed against the virus through either previous infection or vaccination (NIH). Omicron subvariants, on the other hand, have mutated spike proteins, which may explain why BA.5 is so effective at evading preexisting immunity.

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Remember, the virus is in a fight for its very existence. Dr. Virk explains that the virus is constantly adapting in order to stay one step ahead of researchers. Because of the mutations, it is spreading more rapidly.

Therefore, existing antibodies may be less effective against the dominant omicron subvariants if you were vaccinated and boosted or if you were infected with an earlier strain of the coronavirus. However, preliminary research suggests that current vaccines are the best tools we have to reduce the risk of severe COVID symptoms, including those that may be caused by BA.5. This is according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To combat these emerging variants, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recommended that vaccine manufacturers alter the formulation of booster doses.

To what extent does re-infection with COVID pose health risks, according to experts?

However, it is important to keep in mind that the COVID-19-causing coronavirus is still relatively unknown, and knowledge of the dangers of reinfection is still developing. Dr. Virk says that the general consensus among specialists is that symptoms during the initial infection will be more severe than symptoms during reinfection. The CDC agrees with this assessment, though it is difficult to state categorically that this will be the case for everyone given the current state of knowledge.

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The severity of a COVID-19 illness can be amplified by preexisting conditions like immunosuppression. Dr. Virk warns that people who are particularly susceptible to the virus and who experienced severe symptoms from a previous infection may also suffer from severe symptoms during reinfection. Dr. Virk reports no cases of long-term COVID symptoms (also known as long COVID) in otherwise healthy young adults who were reinfected. The CDC reports that people with severe infections are more likely to develop long COVID, but that anyone infected with the virus runs the risk of experiencing long-lasting symptoms or complications.

Since COVID-19 was only discovered in December 2019, there is currently limited information on reinfection, but this will change as new studies become available. In an effort to shed light on the negative consequences of reinfection, a new pre-print paper will be published in June 2022. Patients with two or more COVID infections were found to be at a higher risk of developing diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, fatigue, and cardiovascular disorders, as well as being hospitalized within six months of their last infection. Considering that veterans may have specific medical needs, it is instructive that the study analyzed data from more than 5 million patients seen at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clinics. There is still much to learn, as this study does not prove that re-infection with COVID causes the previously mentioned health issues.

Protecting yourself from COVID-19, even if you’ve tested positive before

David Dowdy, MD, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells SELF, “It’s important to realize that transmission levels are quite high right now.” Unless you live in complete isolation, “complete safety” is unlikely.

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Throughout the pandemic, experts have stressed the importance of continuing to use the same preventative measures. Among these practices are regular and thorough hand washing and the use of antibacterial soap, the use of a high-quality mask in public areas, regular testing, and vaccination or booster shots if necessary.

Dr. Virk recommends that everyone consider their own risk for developing serious illness and the risk of their loved ones and then take the necessary precautions. She explains that while avoiding getting COVID is important to her, her primary concern is not getting it herself but rather accidentally infecting her parents. She encourages her elderly parents to keep donning face masks whenever they visit the supermarket or other crowded public places. You should still wear a mask if you must go outside during peak transmission times because no place is completely safe.

Officials in the White House are also encouraging people who are eligible to get a second booster shot. According to the CDC, second doses are currently only available in the United States to those over the age of 50 and to immunocompromised individuals aged 12 and up; however, experts predict that this may change this fall.

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