At this point in the pandemic, if you haven't gotten COVID yet, you should consider yourself lucky. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 60 percent of all Americans had been infected with the coronavirus by the end of February, and the numbers have only grown since then. Unfortunately, it's not only people who haven't gotten COVID who are at risk, as COVID reinfection remains a pressing concern.
Over time, research has shown that a prior COVID case doesn't mean you're protected from getting infected again, as the immunity granted by vaccines and prior infection wanes over time. But just how soon are you at risk of getting COVID again? Read on to find out what experts are now warning.
Experts say it's likely everyone will get COVID more than once.
The CDC says that while "most individuals will have some protection from repeat infections" after getting COVID once, reinfections can and do occur. And it's likely it won't just be one reinfection. According to The New York Times, many experts now believe the that the coronavirus behind COVID-19 is evolving to act more like other coronaviruses, which cause common colds that infect people multiple times throughout their lives.
"I've thought, almost since the beginning of this pandemic, that COVID-19 is eventually going to become an inevitable infection that everybody gets multiple times, because that's just how a new respiratory virus gets established in the human population," Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious-disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, told the newspaper.
COVID reinfections have become more common over time.
COVID reinfections were rare before the Omicron variant showed up. Now it seems like more and more people are finding out that they've gotten COVID again—and it's not just anecdotal. According to a March 31 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, an infection caused by the Delta variant or a previous COVID variant was found to be around 90 percent effective in preventing a reinfection for both those vaccinated and unvaccinated. Omicron, however, is a different beast entirely.
Omicron really changed that calculus," Laith Abu-Raddad, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist who led the study, told The New York Times. The researchers for the study found that once the Omicron variant emerged, prior infections became only 50 percent protective against reinfection.
You can now get reinfected much sooner than you could before.
The CDC has often indicated that people can wait three months to get a COVID vaccine shot after having COVID, as immunity from infection is reportedly highest during this timeframe. An Oct. 2021 study published in The Lancet found that a COVID reinfection was only likely to occur after that three-month window had passed.
But new research has a concerning update on the potential timeline for getting COVID again. A Feb. 2022 study, which was preprinted on medRxiv and has not yet been peer-reviewed, revealed that some people were reinfected with the Omicron subvariant BA.2 as soon as 20 days after they had previously been infected with the original Omicron variant, BA.1. The researchers from Denmark found that out of a total of 187 reinfection cases with BA.2, 47 cases occurred shortly after an initial infection with BA.1.
The uncertainty of how quickly reinfection could happen means that even people with prior infections should consider additional protection measures—especially if they're trying to avoid getting COVID again at any particular time.
"If you had an infection just last week, you probably don't have to mask up. But as a month or so passes from your infection and new variants start circulating in the U.S., it may make sense for high risk individuals to do that," Adalja told The New York Times. "People who are trying to avoid getting COVID because they're going on a cruise soon or because they need a negative PCR test for some other reason may consider taking precautions. COVID protections don't have to be one-size-fits-all."
You might have a more mild illness if you get COVID again.
There is some good news, however. The study from Denmark found that the quick reinfection cases occurred "mostly in young unvaccinated individuals with mild disease not resulting in hospitalization or death." This falls in line with the idea that immunity from a prior infection or vaccination can help prevent severe COVID, even if you do get infected with the virus again, Shane Crotty, PhD, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in California, told The New York Times.
"Your immune system has all kinds of weapons to try and stop the virus even if it gets past the front door," Crotty explained. According to The New York Times, this means that second or third infections are likely to be shorter and less severe than your first bout of COVID. Abu-Raddad also told the newspaper that out of more than 1,300 reinfections identified by his research team, none had led to ICU hospitalization or death.
"There is no magical solution against COVID reinfection," Abu-Raddad warned. But if you've only been infected and have not been vaccinated, you should consider getting your COVID vaccine—especially if you want to have a better chance at avoiding a reinfection. "Scientific confidence in vaccine-induced immunity was and is much higher than infection-induced immunity," Crotty explained.