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How Many Times Can You Get COVID?

Reinfections become more common as the pandemic presses on

Overhead view of senior Asian woman carrying out a Covid-19 rapid lateral flow test at home. She is holding a positive Coronavirus rapid self test device, feeling worried
d3sign / getty images

The virus that causes COVID-19 (known as SARS-CoV-2) has been circulating for more than two years, and experts say it’s not going away anytime soon.

At this point, most of the U.S. population has already been infected, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, and some people have had COVID-19 more than once. In fact, reinfections have become more common in recent months, and experts say that trend is expected to continue.

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“Everybody is going to be infected with COVID-19 multiple times in their lifetime,” predicts Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Reasons run the gamut. Experts point to waning immunity from previous infections as well as from vaccines, which have been available to most adults for more than a year now. Studies show that the shots, and especially the boosters, still hold strong when it comes to fighting off severe illness and death, but their ability to block transmission fades over time.

Then there’s the emergence of highly contagious variants, most notably omicron and its sibling strains. The mutations that omicron amassed “allow it to get around some of the immunity that is engendered after people have been infected or been vaccinated,” Adalja says. “Those mutations are facilitating those reinfections.” Data from the United Kingdom shows that reinfections surged in January after the arrival of the omicron variant, followed by a second wave in March and April. Reinfections tracked in New York state follow a similar pattern.

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Fewer masks and less handwashing and social distancing have also contributed to the rise in repeat infections, points out Frank Esper, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic. And we can’t ignore family history. Four other seasonal coronaviruses have been circulating the globe for decades, causing almost one-third of common colds. (Rhinoviruses are the most common culprit; adenoviruses are another common cause.)

“It’s clear from the study of those coronaviruses, those cousins to COVID, that the protection you get after an infection wanes after a period of time,” says William Schaffner, M.D., a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. That’s why you can get repeated coronavirus-caused colds over the years. And it appears that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is “similar in that regard,” Schaffner says.

Reinfections tend to be milder in most

How long you’re protected from catching COVID-19 after already having had it — and how secure that protection is — is not well established, Schaffner says. “And it probably varies, depending upon which variant infected you.”

If you’re among the millions of Americans who have had COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant this winter or spring, you may be susceptible to another infection sooner than you think. “People with prior infection, even with [omicron subvariants] BA.1 or BA.2, are likely still at risk for BA.4 or BA.5,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a July 12 press briefing.

BA.5, another subvariant of omicron, is now the dominant variant circulating in the U.S., accounting for about 65 percent of COVID-19 cases; BA. 4, also part of the omicron family, is behind about 16 percent of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

The good news: For many, repeat infections tend to be milder. Having already been acquainted with the virus, Adalja explains, the immune system is better able “to jump into action pretty quickly” and help keep the virus from taking hold.

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That said, older adults, immunocompromised individuals and people with underlying conditions that can complicate a coronavirus infection “can still have serious disease” even if they’ve had COVID-19 before, Schaffner says, “because those people don’t respond optimally with their immune systems.”

Research is underway to learn whether certain people are more at risk for reinfection. So far, emerging data suggest that individuals who are vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 and have had COVID-19 are better protected against reinfection than those with natural immunity or vaccination-derived immunity alone. Experts suspect that this so-called hybrid immunity generates a “broader spectrum of antibody response and a broader spectrum of immunity,” leading to a “more potent immune response,” says Alessandro Sette, a professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology.

The CDC recommends that people who have had COVID-19 still get vaccinated for this “added protection.” And with BA.5 driving up new cases of COVID-19, as well as hospitalizations from the illness, health officials are urging adults 50 and older to get their second booster shot, if they haven’t already.

Another reason to get vaccinated even if you’ve had COVID-19: Data indicate that the rates of long COVID in vaccinated individuals who get a breakthrough infection “are roughly half of what they are in those who are unvaccinated,” says Peter Marks, M.D., director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. A new CDC report reveals that long COVID can affect about 1 in 5 COVID-19 survivors ages 18 to 64; 1 in 4 adults 65 and older are affected by new or lingering symptoms after a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Updated vaccines could curb transmission 

Given the likelihood that COVID-19 is sticking around and the realization that infection-preventing immunity generated by the virus and the vaccines wanes, periodic revaccination (like the annual flu shot) may be necessary as we learn how to best live with the virus, Schaffner says. “And maybe we will have to create an updated COVID vaccine the way we create an updated influenza vaccine on an annual basis,” he adds.

COVID-19 vaccine makers are working on a new generation of their products, health officials have confirmed. The hope is that advancements in vaccine technologies — be it a nasal vaccine or a formula that targets more than one variant — could provide even greater protection against infection and reinfection. 

In the meantime, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of coming down with COVID once, twice or multiple times. These are the same preventive measures that experts have been recommending all along: Stick to well-ventilated spaces, wear a high-quality mask in crowded indoor settings, keep a safe distance from others, and pay attention to the level of transmission in your community. “If there is a surge, the likelihood of being reinfected is much higher than if there is no virus circulating or a lesser amount of virus circulating,” Sette says.

Also, stay up to date with the COVID-19 vaccines, Adalja urges, and “have a plan for rapidly testing yourself and getting linked to treatments like monoclonal antibodies or antivirals if you test positive.” 

Editor's Note: This story, originally published June 1, 2022, has been updated to reflect new information.

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