- Some reports out of countries like China and Japan suggest that people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have tested positive again after recovering.
- Scientists are skeptical that you can contract the novel coronavirus twice.
- An infectious disease doctor explains how COVID-19 immunity should work, and why cases of “reinfection” may come down to testing errors.
As the novel coronavirus quickly spreads throughout the U.S., the national conversation is shifting to address that plenty of people will, in fact, get sick with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.
For many, that’s led to one big question: Can you get the new coronavirus twice?
Some reports suggest that this has happened, but it’s not as clear-cut as you’d think. In China, where COVID-19 originated, there have been more than 100 reported cases of patients who were released from hospitals and later tested positive for the new coronavirus, the Los Angeles Times reports. Chinese health officials have also said that 14% of people who recovered from coronavirus in the country’s Guangdong province later tested positive for the virus, per Caixin.
Something similar has happened in Japan, where government officials reported that a female tour bus guide who tested positive for COVID-19 was discharged after her symptoms improved. But three weeks later, she was dealing with a sore throat and chest pain—and tested positive for COVID-19 again.
However, scientists remain skeptical that you can get COVID-19 twice.
It’s important to remember that COVID-19 is caused by a newly discovered virus and there’s still a lot that experts don’t know about it. As of now, these rare instances of “reinfection” are reports, not peer-reviewed studies, meaning scientists need much more concrete data to determine them as evidence.
That said, they are learning more about COVID-19 every day, and many experts believe that cases in which patients test positive for the second time are likely due to testing errors, explains Richard Watkins, M.D., infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. This could include false positives and negatives due to contaminated samples, human errors, or overly sensitive tests.
It’s also likely that some patients were released from hospitals too early, Dr. Watkins says, while the infection lingered longer than expected—but it’s too soon to say for sure.
As with any virus, “most experts believe that once a person gets COVID-19, they will develop antibodies that will protect them from getting re-infected,” Dr. Watkins says. That’s why some experts also suggest that it’s simply “too soon” and even “unusual” to develop a reinfection at this point. Once you’re sick with COVID-19, those antibodies should protect you for more than a few weeks.
And even for those in high-risk groups, such as people with compromised immune systems and older adults, Dr. Watkins says “there currently isn’t any evidence that some people are more likely to become re-infected,” he says.
Some viruses can mutate and re-infect people that way—once there is difference in the sequence of the virus, it could escape antibodies fighting the initial strain—but that doesn’t seem to be the case with COVID-19 as of now. “This is a theoretical possibility, although there haven’t been any cases of reported infections due to mutated strains,” Dr. Watkins says.
The best way to reduce your risk of COVID-19 in the first place is to follow preventive measures.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that includes the following:
- Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose.
- Avoid close contact with anyone who appears to be sick.
- Practice social distancing to avoid crowded spaces.
- Wash your hands well and frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water isn’t readily available.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
- Talk to your doctor if you develop symptoms within 14 days of returning from a country with a COVID-19 outbreak.
- Stay home if you develop cold or flu-like symptoms.
- Avoid nonessential travel to areas with active COVID-19 outbreaks.
- Visit the website for your local health department to make sure you are getting accurate updates.
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