If you had COVID-19, that doesn't mean you can't get it again—even if you're vaccinated and boosted. Here's what experts say about COVID-19 reinfection. Key TakeawaysIf you were infected with COVID-19 once, it’s possible to get reinfected with new and emerging variants of the virus. In fact, experts say it’s possible to get reinfected with COVID-19 multiple times in a year. Reinfections are
Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5 now make up nearly 21% of new COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As new COVID-19 strains emerge, infectious disease experts say that reinfections and breakthrough COVID-19 infections will become increasingly normal.
Here’s everything health experts want you to know about COVID-19 reinfections.
The U.S. currently is not tracking COVID-19 reinfections, but Kelly Gebo, MD, MPH, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine with expertise in COVID-19 and epidemiology, told Verywell that she believes people can get infected with COVID-19 more than once a year.
In fact, getting infected with COVID-19 could become a seasonal occurrence, like catching the flu or the common cold.
We’re going to see reinfections happening and people’s immunity will wane just like we see with other types of viral infections.
“It’s likely that almost all of us are going to become infected at some point with the virus because there are new variants that develop,” said Gebo. “We’re going to see reinfections happening and people’s immunity will wane just like we see with other types of viral infections.”
How severe these reinfections will be are unknown at this time, Julie Parsonnet, MD, a professor of epidemiology and population health at Stanford University, told Verywell.
“They could become more and more mild," said Parsonnet. "Or, like the flu, they could vary from surge to surge."
According to Scott Weisenberg, MD, a clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and the director of the travel medicine program, it's possible to get reinfected with COVID-19 even if you've already tested positive for and recovered from the virus once. It's also possible to get COVID-19 if you're up to date on your vaccines and boosters.
“Since Omicron and all the new variants after, reinfections have become more common despite people’s prior infection status or vaccination,” said Weisenberg. “While they’re still protected against severe disease from vaccines and boosters, they don’t have as much protection that lasts as long against reinfections.”
Since viruses—including COVID-19— are constantly changing, new strains can increase a person's risk of reinfection. Parsonnet points to Omicron, the current virus strain, which is able to evade both vaccines and natural immunity as time passes, similar to other coronaviruses.
When you combine evolving strains with natural immunity or immunity from vaccines waning over time, Gebo said, seeing cases of reinfection is expected.
“We’re learning with Omicron that immunity wanes, so as people move further away from their vaccine or booster, their immunity to the virus goes down as well,” said Gebo. “Some people also feel that the pandemic is over or would like to think it's over and there’s a lot less masking and social distancing and so people are becoming exposed on a much more regular basis.”
It’s not possible to say exactly how many times a person can get reinfected with COVID-19, but experts agree there’s no limit. Reinfection can also occur more than once per year.
We don’t know whether these reinfections will be very mild or whether they will have the capacity to cause severe illness.
Gebo said if the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate and change, people can continue to get exposed to new variants and get infected again.
“There’s been some speculation that the virus is mutating on roughly every four- to six-month basis," said Gebo. "And so it’s possible you could become reinfected multiple times within a year."
However, Weisenberg said that whether a person gets reinfected depends on a few factors, including the strength of their immune response (especially from previous infections by different variants) and whether they are up to date on vaccinations.
"We don’t know whether these reinfections will be very mild or whether they will have the capacity to cause severe illness," Parsonnet said. "It simply depends on how virulent the strains are and the development of new vaccines."
According to the CDC, the immune response following a COVID-19 infection should continue to provide at least 50% protection against reinfection for one to two years following the initial infection or vaccination.
Weisenberg said while the CDC's data and other observational studies have suggested that natural immunity will help protect people against COVID-19 reinfection for at least six months, that timeframe depends on what new and future variants will look like.
“I don’t think you can get reinfected in 30 days and I think it’s unlikely in two months, but we don’t know anything for sure,” said Gebo. “With each variant, it seems to be a little bit different.”
Immunity duration also varies from person to person. For example, Gebo said that a person who is immunosuppressed might be more likely to be infected multiple times because their body can’t mount a strong response.
Gebo said that cases of reinfections are likely to be milder or less severe than a prior infection due to vaccinations and higher levels of immunity from previous infections.
“If you are vaccinated and have an infection, you tend to have fewer symptoms than people who are unvaccinated and have had symptoms,” Gebo said.
However, Weisenberg said that some people may experience symptoms that are more severe the second, third, or even fourth time around. Those cases are dependent on variables such as what variant they got, the amount of virus they were exposed to, how immune they were to a particular variant when exposed, if immunity against COVID has waned, and their health at that point in time.
Weisenberg emphasized that vaccines remain one of the most effective tools to prevent severe disease, hospitalizations, and death.
At this time, there’s not enough evidence to say whether or not reinfection leads to long COVID—symptoms that persist for weeks or months after recovering from an initial infection.
“We’re still learning about long COVID and how reinfection may have an impact," said Gebo. "That’s not something we can definitely answer right now, especially if you’re less or more likely to develop that."
The CDC currently does not track cases of reinfection or the populations most affected. But Gebo said there are certain groups of people who are more susceptible to reinfection, including older adults, people who have chronic medical conditions such as sickle cell disease or heart disease, people with other underlying health conditions, and people who are unable to mount an immune response to the vaccine.
To avoid reinfection, experts recommend that people continue to take the same steps they've been taking throughout the pandemic:
Getting reinfected with COVID-19 is possible—even if you've been vaccinated. Experts say that it's possible people will get reinfected with new variants of the virus more than once a year. That said, experts also emphasize that masking and getting vaccinated can help prevent reinfection.
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.How Many Times Can I Get Reinfected With COVID-19? View Story