As much as you probably don’t want to hear this, the pandemic is still here. And people are continuing to get infected with COVID-19 — even for a second (or third) time. Because things just can’t be easy, can they?
We connected with Brenda Anne Wilson, professor of microbiology at University of Illinois, to get to the bottom of how and why people are getting COVID-19 twice — and most importantly, what they can do about it.
Just tell me. Can you get COVID-19 more than once?
Reinfection is a real possibility. And that’s especially true when it comes to the newer variants. If you got one of the original strains of COVID (see: the OG strain or Delta) and recovered, Wilson says it’s still possible to get reinfected with Omicron. Because the antibodies your body created to fight off the first COVID variants aren’t as equipped to defend against the new variants.
And even if you already got the most recent strain (hi, Omicron BA.2), you could still get it again, Wilson says. That’s because your natural immunity — again, those antibodies your body built to protect you from getting the virus in the future — doesn’t last forever (more on that later). Love that for us.
Even if you’re fully vaccinated?
Yup. Even if you’ve had your first two vaccine doses and you’re up to date on the most recent booster shots, it’s still possible to get reinfected with COVID-19. When that happens, it’s considered a breakthrough case. They’re rare, but they happen. Because even though vaccines greatly reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, they don’t prevent illness 100% of the time.
Plus, as Wilson says, the vaccine’s job isn’t just to prevent you from getting COVID-19. “The purpose of the vaccination is to prime your immune system,” she says. “Everybody thinks, ‘Oh I'm vaccinated, so I'm not going to get the virus.’ That's not true. You will get the virus. It's just that your [immune] response to it is going to be a lot faster.”
And what if you’re not vaccinated?
Getting COVID-19 more than once is “much more prevalent in individuals who are not vaccinated,” says Wilson. Because, again, the virus has changed — and the natural immunity you might have built up after the first round is less likely to ward off the Delta or Omicron variants.
Do I have higher immunity to COVID-19 after I get it for the first time?
Recovering from COVID-19 gives your immune system an extra boost of protection, according to the CDC. But that boost is temporary (think: it can start to wane as early as six months). And reinfection is still very possible, both during and after that time period. Especially when new variants find ways to dodge those antibodies.
And while the CDC states that scientists are still determining how long protection from the COVID-19 vaccine lasts, Wilson says that natural immunity (i.e. the antibodies your body develops by itself after recovering from COVID-19) doesn’t last nearly as long as the vaccine protection.
How soon am I susceptible to getting COVID-19 again after recovering from my first infection?
Unclear. There are studies in the works to determine how soon reinfections can happen. What we know: New COVID variants have a way of getting around antibodies developed from a previous variant. And vaccines help.
If I am reinfected with COVID-19, should I expect symptoms to be as severe as the first time I got it?
“For the most part, the vast majority of people will not have a bad response the second time around,” says Wilson. That’s especially true if you’ve been vaccinated. But there are exceptions, Wilson says. Which is why the pandemic isn’t over for people who have chronic illnesses or who are immunocompromised. And why you should still take precautions (see: isolate for five days after exposure or testing positive). Because even if you have a mild case, it can still spread to others.
What can I do to avoid getting COVID-19 twice?
First and foremost: “We need to make sure that we're fully vaccinated,” Wilson says. Also, wear masks, keep a safe distance from others whenever possible, and wash your hands. There’s a reason these guidelines are repeated almost everywhere — they work.
Getting COVID-19 more than once could happen, whether or not you’re vaccinated. Not ideal for our mental health. But it’s most likely to be a milder case. And things like vaccines, masks, and keeping a safe distance can help you avoid getting it and spreading it.
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