COVID-19 reinfection rates are trending higher in winter 2022 than they were at earlier points of the pandemic, given the contagious nature of the Omicron variant.
If you've been impacted by the Omicron strain recently, there is a possibility that newer variations of this variant (and SARS-CoV-2 strains to come) may put you at risk for a second sickness, despite any earned immunity.
To help understand the latest data in a space where research is lacking, an academic expert says that Americans should be less concerned about current variants and more concerned about reinfection stemming from potentially new versions of the virus behind the COVID-19 spread.
Getting vaccinated, boosted and wearing a mask, among other best practices, will lessen your risk of reinfection if you've already tested positive for COVID-19 in weeks, months or years prior.
As Omicron continues to be the dominant force of COVID-19 spread across the globe — with new iterations of this particular variant already in play — more evidence suggests that getting impacted twice by SARS-CoV-2 is likelier than many originally believed. The rise of multiple variants has translated to a higher risk of a breakthrough case for even those who are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations, as the virus' structure changes over time.
But as Omicron specifically is proving to be more infectious in nature compared to earlier strains like Delta and Alpha, you may be wondering if it's possible to be impacted by Omicron more than once, especially if you live in an area where transmission is high.
The short answer? It's not out of the question — experts have been saying that Omicron reinfection is a possibility, especially for those with weakened immune systems.
While data is still limited around Omicron spread given that researchers need more time to confirm trends, real-world data of Omicron spread in South Africa suggests that overall immunity may be less robust following a mild COVID-19 infection, which has been the case for most Omicron sicknesses, says Sanjiv S. Shah, M.D., chief medical officer for MetroPlusHealth.
A recent pre-print of a forthcoming medical study organized by researchers within the University of California system contains data that further suggests immunity earned from an Omicron infection may not be as protective as immune responses recorded during the Delta wave in 2021, let alone immunity granted by a vaccine.
The real concern here, according to experts, is how likely reinfection is when it comes to the Omicron variant — and the reality is that a double Omicron-based infection appears to be quite rare. It's compounded by the fact that current COVID-19 testing doesn't always allow you to understand which SARS-CoV-2 variant you've been impacted by after testing positive, making it tougher for anyone to confirm if they've even been impacted by Omicron in the first place, though likely due to its current spread.
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Whether your immune system contains COVID-19 antibodies after fighting through infection or through natural response to a COVID-19 vaccine booster, it is possible to get reinfected after either of these events. Mansoor Amiji, Ph.D., chairman and professor of the pharmaceutical sciences and chemical engineering department at Northeastern University's School of Pharmacy, tells Good Housekeeping that most researchers are still working to understand how rapidly antibodies fade after an infection, specifically.
The window largely associated with earned immunity tends to be closely associated with current guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which maintains that those who have tested positive for COVID-19 shouldn't test again for another 90 days. In that time period, Amiji says you'd theoretically be protected from a second infection, "but if that decline in antibody levels is rapid from the [first] infection, then you may not necessarily have enough of the antibodies to prevent a second infection," which he shared in a Northeastern University news piece.
So, what does this mean for you, if you've already experienced a recent COVID-19 sickness? here's what the experts say.
Can you get reinfected with COVID-19?
As we've established, getting COVID-19 twice is far from impossible — even if you are fully up to date on a COVID-19 vaccination. And scientists have already confirmed that Omicron has earned special attention at this stage of the pandemic, as evidence suggests that the strain spread more effectively than others, demonstrating an ability to reinfect someone who had previously experienced a COVID-19 illness, even sometimes within the CDC's official 90-day reinfection window.
Dr. Shah says there are several factors that impact earned COVID-19 antibodies and your immunity after a sickness — and it starts with the severity of your illness, the strain you were impacted by and the likelihood of re-exposure, all of which impact reinfection risk. "It appears that immunity from natural infection would generally start to wane after about 90 days, and immunity following vaccination, especially with a booster dose, will persist longer," he adds.
Officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) have equally stressed that the potential risk for COVID-19 reinfection is higher with Omicron than it is to other variants they've seen in years previous; a case of reinfection was once considered very rare, according to public health data available in the United Kingdom. The latest data, as shared in a recent report published by Aljazeera, suggests that reinfections accounted for 10% of newly confirmed cases in the U.K. in January — and in Italy, 3%, which was double what it was prior to Omicron's spread in the nation.
Reinfection rates are indeed higher now than earlier in the pandemic. But reinfection caused by Omicron — specifically for those who became sick by its initial spread — isn't as concerning or rampant as confirmed second cases of COVID-19 for individuals who were previously impacted in early 2021 and 2022, fueled by new Omicron spread, Aljazeera summarizes.
Amiji adds that as vaccines continue to aid an ever-expanding amount of the population in blocking potential viral infections, it makes sense that SARS-CoV-2 strains will likely continue to mutate in response. If you have experienced a COVID-19 sickness at any point in 2021, particularly prior to the holiday season, you shouldn't expect post-sickness immunity to offer serious protection against Omicron, he adds. The mutated protein structure of this particular version of the virus is likely too complex for your immune system to effectively target on its own, which is why a majority of Americans were asked to receive a third booster shot earlier this winter.
The same may be said for someone who has experienced a breakthrough illness in 2022, even if it was Omicron that was the root cause, as there's a good chance that future iterations of SARS-CoV-2 may impact any immunity you may have built up. "If another variant of the coronavirus sweeps through, the antibodies generated by your initial infection might not be as effective against the new variant," Amiji shared in the same Northeastern report.
Can you get an Omicron COVID-19 infection for a second time?
There is a possibility of becoming impacted by Omicron when it comes to reinfection, but there isn't enough data yet to determine how likely this would be in reality — and certain trends elsewhere in the pandemic suggest that any likelihood of an Omicron reinfection for any given person may further be on the decline.
While Omicron drove a massive wave of new COVID-19 infections in December and January, Amiji stresses that national infection rates are declining, and there's been a steeper decline in hospitalization. Evidence suggests that those who have up-to-date immunizations and those who recently recovered from an Omicron sickness have become a noticeable majority here in the United States, which means experts are thinking immunity levels against viral strains are higher than they were earlier this winter. "I feel that we will not see a resurgence [of Omicron cases], I think we are at a declining phase," Amiji clarifies.
Researchers may be more concerned about reinfection rates when it comes to the rise of another variant that may impact those who have experienced a primary Omicron infection this winter.
"It's speculative, but if there is any potential infection that poses a comeback risk, it will be a different variant in total… future variants may have the potential to be more virulent than what we have had in the past," Amiji says. If another variant were to arise as more common than Omicron in the spring, there's a chance that the expected lower risk of reinfection within 90 days may be impacted. There is still very much potential for new variants to arise this season and later this year, Amiji adds, as the majority of nations still have vaccine access issues and populations that are under-vaccinated, an issue that WHO officials have repeatedly called attention to.
The bottom line:
If you're worried about getting sick again — whether from the Omicron COVID-19 variant or from a future variant altogether — the best course of action is to get vaccinated, even if you've recently fought your way through a COVID-19 sickness and have yet to be vaccinated or received a booster shot. Recommendations vary, but you can seek out a first or a third vaccine as soon as you clear current quarantine recommendations established by the CDC, according to the New York Times.
"Omicron is waning, but if we can learn from the past, it will not be the last strain we will face," Dr. Shah says, adding that the likelihood of serious reinfection would be drastically reduced for a vaccinated individual. "Getting fully vaccinated and boosted and taking care to protect ourselves by masking in crowded areas is the most prudent thing we can do."
Even if you face COVID-19 reinfection, you should expect that the sickness may be less impactful a second time around, especially if you are vaccinated, Amiji adds. "Even after a breakthrough infection, the disease severity was significantly lower... Individuals were not necessarily requiring hospitalization and usually within five days or so, they started to feel better — the symptoms were also dissipating a lot faster."
As more information about the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department.
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