With the BA.5 omicron subvariant causing increased reinfections, even for those who may have had omicron before, many are wondering how quickly they could get COVID again after an infection.
While many experts say the exact timing remains unclear and depends on each individual, cases of reinfection are being reported as early as a month.
“We don’t know exactly how long, but people have been recorded to get the infection as early as four weeks after having had a previous infection,” said Dr Sharon Welbel, director of hospital epidemiology and infection control. at Cook County Health.
Welbel said current reinfections could be linked to either decreased immunity from a previous infection or vaccinations, depending on whether and when a person received a booster. Because of this, Welbel said it was possible for some to contract the virus again even before a month after infection.
“It might even be sooner,” she said. “I would think, you know, based on his immune system, his level of antibodies – against the vaccine or a previous infection – but because, you know, we don’t become immune to that because of our vaccine or “previous infection to one of the variants we’ve experienced before…I don’t see why anyone couldn’t even get it as early as two weeks later. Did I see that? No. . But I’ve definitely seen people in a month.”
The question of how protected a person is following a COVID infection has received varying answers since the start of the pandemic.
Chicago’s Top Physician noted that while the omicron variant itself marked a distinct shift in reinfections, eschewing natural immunity against infection by previous strains, BA.5 also evaded immunity against even other omicron infections.
“All the variants before that, we weren’t seeing a lot of reinfection with the current variant,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “So we saw people who had alpha or delta in the past being relatively protected, but potentially infected with omicron. Everything has been omicron since January, to be clear – all of these subvariants are different versions of omicron. BA .4, BA.5 is the first where we see re-infection even of people who had an earlier version of omicron, so it’s different.
Arwady said while it’s still unlikely someone will get re-infected if you’ve recently had COVID, “we’re seeing more of these infections.”
“Especially if you’re counting on an omicron infection from six months ago, don’t count on it,” she said.
In addition to being even more contagious than previous variants, scientists have tracked a mutation in BA.4 and BA.5 that may help it evade some immunity and cause reinfections.
A genetic trait reminiscent of the pandemic past, similar to the so-called “delta mutation”, appears to allow subvariants “to escape pre-existing immunity from vaccination and prior infection, especially if you’ve been infected with the omicron wave,” said Dr. Wesley Long, pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas. This is because the original strain of omicron that swept the world didn’t have the mutation.
This genetic change is bad news for people who caught the original omicron and thought it made them unlikely to get COVID-19 again soon. Although most people aren’t sure which variant caused their illness, the original omicron caused a giant surge of cases late last year and early this year.
Long lab data suggests that prior infection with the original omicron is not very protective against reinfection with the new mutants, although the true risk of being reinfected, regardless of variant, is unique to each person and each situation.
However, vaccinations against COVID-19 continued to prevent serious hospitalizations and deaths, experts said.
Arwady noted that while a lot is still happening around the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, she doesn’t think the incubation period is changing, but some people are staying positive for longer.
“I wouldn’t say the incubation period is getting shorter…it’s getting shorter than it was originally, but often we see people just having respiratory symptoms seniors or have a cold, they sometimes have a sore throat, they have a fever or don’t see much of this serious illness – especially in people who are up to date with the vaccine because the secondary part of your immune system takes action and helps – but we see people that they can stay positive for a little longer,” she said.
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Welbel continued to urge people to take precautions as new mutations continue to spread.
“We know there’s very little mitigation happening publicly but, you know, wearing a mask indoors all the time is going to help – a properly fitting mask, so the N95 or KN95 and above” , she said. “And have your vaccinations up to date. Even outdoors, I recommend wearing a mask if you’re going to be in close contact with people.”