Scientists recommend masks, vaccines and vigilance to prevent re-infection
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly three years ago, scientists have discovered that the initial infection can result in both short- and long-term health risks that affect nearly every organ system in the body. They also found that people can get COVID-19 a second or third time despite receiving natural antibodies and receiving vaccinations and revaccinations after the first infection.
Now, a new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs Health System of St. Louis shows the health consequences of reinfection. The researchers found that repeated SARS-CoV-2 infections contribute to a significant additional risk of adverse health conditions in multiple organ systems.
Such outcomes include hospitalization; Diseases of the lungs, heart, brain and blood, musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal system; and even death. Reinfection also contributes to diabetes, kidney disease, and mental problems.
The findings were published in Nature Medicine on November 10.
“In recent months, there has been an air of invincibility among people who have had COVID-19 or their vaccinations and revaccinations, and especially among people who have had the infection and also been vaccinated. Some people have started referring to these individuals as having a kind of super-immunity to the virus,” said the lead author Ziyad Al-Aly, MD , a clinical epidemiologist at the medical school. “Our research clearly showed that a second, third or fourth infection contributes to additional health risks in the acute phase, i.e. the first 30 days after infection, and in the following months, i.e. the long phase of COVID.”
In addition, the study showed that the risk seems to increase with each infection. “This means that it is better to avoid the third even if you have had two COVID-19 infections,” Al-Aly said. “And if you’ve had three infections, it’s best to avoid a fourth.
Limiting exposure to the virus is especially important as the U.S. heads into the winter months, when new variants emerge that mutate and are already causing a spike in infections in some parts of the country, Al-Aly said. “People should do their best to prevent re-infection, for example by getting all the appropriate vaccinations and staying at home if they are sick. Also get a flu shot to prevent illness. We really need to do everything we can to reduce the likelihood that we’ll have the twin deaths of COVID-19 and the flu this winter season.”
For the study, researchers analyzed approximately 5.8 million anonymized medical records in a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the nation’s largest integrated health care system. Patients represented multiple age groups, races, and genders.
The researchers created a controlled data set of 5.3 million people who did not test positive for COVID-19 infection from March 1, 2020 to April 6, 2022. During the same time frame, the researchers also compiled a control group of more than 443,000 people who tested positive per one COVID-19 infection, and another group of nearly 41,000 people who had two or more documented infections. Of the second group, most people had two or three infections, a small number had four infections, and no one had five or more infections.
Statistical modeling was used to examine the health risks of repeated COVID-19 infections during the first 30 days after contracting the virus and up to six months afterward.
The study looked at variants of COVID-19 such as Delta, Omicron and BA.5. Negative results occurred both in the unvaccinated and in those who had been vaccinated before reinfection.
Overall, the researchers found that people with reinfection with COVID-19 were twice as likely to die and three times more likely to be hospitalized than people without reinfection.
In addition, people with repeated infections were 3.5 times more likely to develop lung problems, 3 times more likely to develop heart disease and 1.6 times more likely to develop brain disease than those who contracted the virus once.
“Our findings have far-reaching public health implications because they tell us that strategies should be implemented to prevent or reduce the risk of reinfection,” Al-Aly said. “At the beginning of the winter season, people should be aware of the risks and take precautions to reduce the risk of contracting or reinfecting SARS-CoV-2.”
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