When the pandemic first started, it was shocking to hear that someone you knew had tested positive for COVID. But two years later, it’s almost more shocking to find out that someone has not been infected with the virus.
In late April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that the majority of Americans had been infected with coronavirus by Feb. 2022—and it’s only continued to spread since then. So far, there have been more than 87 million COVID cases reported to the CDC. But the agency says the total impact of the virus likely reaches much further this, with blood tests indicating that the estimated number of infections is actually over 186 million. That means even people who think they’ve never had COVID will want to heed a recent warning from virus experts.
Read on to find out about this new alert being given to anyone who has had the coronavirus.
READ THIS NEXT: Dr. Fauci Just Said Virus Experts Are “Very Concerned” About This.
The coronavirus is not a one-and-done deal for everyone. Over the last two years, we’ve seen many people experience continued issues after their initial infection. Long COVID, Paxlovid rebound, and even reinfection are not uncommon. According to the CDC, while “most individuals will have some protection from repeat infections” after recovering from COVID, it is possible for people to get the virus multiple times.
“Reinfection with the virus that causes COVID-19 means a person was infected, recovered, and then later became infected again,” the CDC explains.
It may feel like you’re hearing more about reinfections now than you were before 2022—and that’s because you are. “If you asked me about reinfection maybe a year and a half ago, I would tell you that maybe I have a patient here or there, but it’s really, really rare,” Ziyad Al-AlyMD, director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center, and the chief of research and education service at Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System, told CNN, adding that this is no longer the case.
What’s changed? According to the CDC, the emergence of new COVID variants “can increase the risk of reinfection,” and the current, rapidly spreading Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are some of the worst offenders. Peter Chin-HongMD, a UC San Francisco infectious-disease expert, told the Los Angeles Times that the two subvariants’ “superpower is reinfection,” as they have the ability to quickly evade existing immunity—even among those who were recently infected with other Omicron subvariants.
“What we are seeing is an increasing number of people who have been infected with BA2 and then becoming infected (again) after four weeks,” Andrew Robertson, Western Australia’s chief health officer, recently told news.com.au, per Insider. “So maybe six to eight weeks (later) they are developing a second infection, and that’s almost certainly either BA4 or BA5.”
RELATED: For more up-to-date information, sign up for our daily newsletter.
It’s not just the news that reinfection is more common now that should concern people who have already been infected with the virus. A new study released as a preprint for Nature Portfolio found that there could be some dangerous health risks associated with catching COVID more than once. Researchers for the study used the health records of more than 5.6 million people treated in the VA Health System to compare patients who had just one COVID infection to those who had two or more reported infections.
According to the study, people who had been infected with COVID more than once had double the risk of death and triple the risk of hospitalization within six months of their last infection, compared with those who had only had a singular COVID case. The researchers also found that these individuals had a higher risk of developing new and lasting health conditions, such as lung and heart problems, fatigue, digestive and kidney disorders, diabetes, and neurologic problems.
No one wants to get COVID more than once, but many people assume that if they’ve survived their first bout with the virus, they’ll be fine if they get it again. “There is this idea that if you had COVID before, your immune system is trained to recognize it and is more equipped to fight it, and if you’re getting it again, maybe it doesn’t affect you that much, but that’s not really true,” Al-Aly, who led the study, told CNN. “The most relevant question to people’s lives is, if you get reinfected, does it add to your risk of acute complications and long COVID? And the answer is a clear yes and yes.”
According to the study, the risk of a new health problem increases with each subsequent COVID reinfection, and this continuously climbing risk is present even for those who have been vaccinated. But Al-Aly did note that it has been more common to see reinfections among people who already had existing health risks because of their age or other underlying health issues. “It is possible that sicker individuals or people with immune dysfunction are at higher risk of reinfection and adverse health outcomes after reinfection,” he told CNN.