You made it through COVID-19 and made it to the other side, and now you’re feeling invincible. Surely you’re not going to get it again, right? Especially after you got vaccinated?
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Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s not exactly true. Experts say you’re not in the clear just because you’ve already contracted and recovered from the virus. Breakthrough cases are possible even in previously ill people who are fully vaccinated — and in fact, if you’ve had COVID-19 already but are not vaccinated, you may be at an even higher risk of getting sick again.
Pediatric infectious disease specialist Frank Esper, MD, answers your questions about COVID-19 reinfection, including how you can best protect yourself from getting the virus again.
Why you can get COVID-19 more than once
Yes, you can get COVID-19 more than once. “We’re seeing more reinfections now than during the start of the pandemic, which is not necessarily surprising,” Dr. Esper says. He breaks down the reasons behind reinfection.
- The pandemic has been happening for a while: In December 2021, the U.S. surpassed 50 million cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. “At this point, many of those infections happened months ago or more than a year ago,” Dr. Esper says. “The immunity from those initial infections begins to wane over time.”
- Vaccine immunity diminishes with time, too: For Americans who got vaccinated as early as winter 2020, immunity may be starting to wane, as well. This is one reason why it’s critical to receive your third dose.
- We’ve stopped being as careful: Gone are the early days of mass vigilance around safety precautions such as masking, handwashing and social distancing — all the things that initially kept the virus at bay.
- New variants are extra-contagious: COVID-19 variants are more infectious than the first wave of coronavirus. “These variants are able to overcome some of the existing immunity people developed via vaccination or a previous infection,” Dr. Esper explains.
“You put all four of those things together, and it’s not too surprising that we’re seeing more and more people becoming infected for a second time,” Dr. Esper says.
Are variants to blame for reinfections?
The CDC reports that the delta variant is at least twice as contagious as previous variants, and in December, omicron became the dominant variant in the U.S. It’s even more contagious than delta.
But you may be surprised to learn that the coronavirus actually doesn’t mutate nearly as much as the flu, which changes nearly everything about its appearance from one year to the next. Rather, Dr. Esper says, it’s COVID-19’s contagiousness that makes it so, well, contagious.
“This variant’s infectiousness — including its ability to evade immune systems and prevent long-lasting immunity for those people who are infected with it — is one of the reasons why it’s been able to persist and come back,” he explains.
Who’s at risk of COVID-19 reinfection?
By now, we know that anyone can get COVID-19 — the vaccinated and unvaccinated, those who have had it already and those who haven’t. In the same vein, anyone can get COVID-19 again.
“It’s important to note that we’re still learning a lot about reinfections and who’s at risk for those reinfections,” Dr. Esper says. But doctors do know that some people are at higher risk than others.
Reinfection in unvaccinated people
Think you don’t need to get vaccinated because you’ve already had COVID-19? Think again.
“This virus can overcome a person’s host immunity and cause a second infection,” Dr. Esper says. “Reports indicate that vaccination provides longer protection than natural infection.”
He’s referencing a study that shows that unvaccinated people are 2.34 times more likely to be reinfected with COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated — which drives home the importance of being vaccinated, even if you’ve already had the virus.
“Almost all the severe cases that we’re seeing right now are people who have not been vaccinated,” he says.
Reinfection in immunocompromised people
People with immune problems are at a higher risk for COVID-19 reinfection than the general public, prompting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to authorize booster shots of Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines starting with immunocompromised individuals.
“We always knew that people with immune problems were more likely to have less of a response to the vaccine and more likely to get a second infection after they got the vaccine,” Dr. Esper says. Booster shots are designed to help reduce that likelihood.
Data doesn’t lie: COVID-19 vaccines work
Breakthrough cases of COVID-19, including cases of reinfection in vaccinated people, are not a sign that the vaccine doesn’t work.
“There is a very coordinated and concise effort against vaccines, and those people want to amplify breakthrough infections as a reason not to get vaccinated,” Dr. Esper says. “But the safety and benefit of getting vaccinated is very, very strong, and they far outweigh the risks of getting vaccinated, which are very, very small.”
In short? Vaccination is still critical. If you’re not yet vaccinated, now is the time to get it done — for your safety and for the safety of those around you.