Why Some People Are Getting COVID-19 Again
How to protect yourself from the risk of coronavirus variants
If you have recovered from a COVID-19 infection, probably the last thing you want is to get the virus again. And until recently, you may have thought or hoped that once you had the disease, you were protected—like you can be from, say, chickenpox.
But scientists have long known that immune protection can be shorter with some viruses than others. And reports of people being reinfected with the coronavirus, along with the emergence of several variants that appear to be both more contagious and more dangerous, have sparked worry that for some people, a single bout of COVID-19 may not be their last.
For people who got COVID-19 in the past year, “the question will be, ‘Will they still have immunity, and will that immunity work against the variant strains?’ ” says Aaron Glatt, MD, chair of the department of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Hewlett, N.Y.
A year into the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that reinfections are rare but possible.
Here’s what you need to know about reinfection, including how to avoid a second COVID-19 infection.
Reinfections Are Uncommon, But Variants May Make Them More Likely
In the first several months of the pandemic, reinfections appeared to be uncommon, though researchers did document a few cases. One of the first confirmed cases in the U.S. was a 25-year-old Nevada man who tested positive for the virus in April 2020 and again in June, according to an article in The Lancet. And last October, five residents of a skilled nursing facility in Kentucky appeared to be reinfected after having contracted the virus in a July outbreak there.
Older People and Those With Compromised Immune Systems May Be at the Highest Risk
While a previous infection, either with the original virus or a variant, almost certainly provides some protection, reinfection is possible. And some people may be more vulnerable than others.
That includes older people. A new study in The Lancet found that people younger than 65 who already had COVID-19 had roughly 80 percent immunity against reinfection. By contrast, for those ages 65 and older, protection dropped to 47 percent. That may be because immune function tends to diminish with age.
Other people with a weakened immune system also likely face an increased risk of reinfection, Katona says. That includes cancer patients or people who have received an organ transplant.
Getting Vaccinated May Help Prevent Reinfection
Even if you’ve had COVID-19, you should consider getting vaccinated as soon as you are eligible—especially if you’re 65 or older. Early evidence suggests that protection from vaccines is stronger and longer lasting than what you get from a prior infection. Also, vaccines used in this country still appear to be effective against P.1 and other known variants.
Still, either because immunity wanes with time or some variants may be able to evade the protection provided by a vaccine, it’s possible people may eventually need boosters against new variants.
And just as people who previously had the disease should wear a mask and follow social distancing practices while out in public, so should people who have been vaccinated.
Read more about what you can and can’t do after being vaccinated.