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It’s Time Once Again for a COVID Update

a stethoscope showing risks with repeat COVID infections

When someone gets COVID today, we tend to be much less concerned than we might have been a couple of years ago. This is due to a number of factors. For one, many people have been vaccinated, and despite new COVID variants, these are believed to offer protections. Likewise, many have had at least one COVID bout, which hopefully imparts some immune resistance. But when it comes to the risks of repeat COVID infections, the jury is out. Some of the research looks quite favorable in this regard while some studies do not. Given this, it remains important to stay abreast of the latest COVID news and discoveries.

a graphic showing new COVID variants
New COVID variants are inevitable… and upon us.

(There was supposed to be a COVID vaccine for all the strains, but that didn’t seem to materialize–read all about it in this Bold story.)

In considering the risks of repeat COVID infections, there are a few different concerns. One of the pressing questions is whether or not new COVID variants are more severe than earlier forms. Also, there is a question as to whether repeat bouts of COVID make it more likely to develop long COVID symptoms. And there remains unknowns about the lasting effects on health from past COVID infections over time. These represent the key areas of research regarding COVID today along with ongoing assessments of new COVID variants. The following thus provides a snapshot of what is currently known about COVID and its impacts currently.

“Just because you were lucky enough previously to not have more persistent symptoms, that’s not a reassurance you won’t the next time around.” – Dr. Marc Sala, Co-director, Northwestern Medicine Comprehensive COVID-19 Center

Infection Severity and Repeated COVID Infections

Many people presume that once they have had one COVID bout, the next will likely be less severe. Having developed an immune response to the first infection, it’s assumed this will offer protection the second time around. It’s not necessarily wrong to make these assumptions, but this may not be the case with new COVID variants. This became clear with the Omicron variant, which caused more severe infections in many despite having had earlier COVID version. Thus, with the latest COVID variants such as BA.2.86 causing increased infections lately, questions about severity are being asked again.

While definitive statements cannot be made, scientists have generally found that most of the new COVID variants are less potent. This means that repeated infections are usually milder and less severe in terms of acute symptoms. However, this is not true for everyone. For those of older age and/or immunocompromised, the risks of repeat COVID infections remain significant. This is also true for those who had highly severe COVID infections the first time around. But for most people, a second or third bout of COVID is likely to be less severe than the first. This is certainly good news, and hopefully future research will continue to show this to be the case.

“Reinfection [with COVID] is very contentious. Literally depending on which paper you are reading, there’s contradicting information regarding that. So I don’t know what to believe.” – Fikadu Tafesse, Virologist, Oregon Health & Science University

a graphic showing some ghosts doing medical stuff
A ready for COVID season?

Risks of Long COVID with Repeat Bouts

While evidence concerning severity risks with repeat COVID infections is fairly clear, this isn’t the case with other issues. Specifically, risks of developing long COVID or lang-haulers syndrome are not nearly as well-defined. Studies looking at this issue with new COVID variants have shown mixed results. In essence, any strain appears to have some risks for developing lasting symptoms related to COVID. But these risks are far from uniform and remain quite sporadic. As such, experts are not yet comfortable reassuring people that these newer COVID versions should be less concerning.

(COVID long-haulers are a mystery that needs to be solved–read more in this Bold story.)

In summarizing the existing studies available, there are some conclusions that can be made related to long COVID. For one, the overall risk for developing this complication remains fairly low. Only a small percentage of patients actually meet criteria for this condition. Also, for people who have mild symptoms, even with second or third bouts, tend to be lower risk as well. But it’s still not evident whether risks of repeat COVID infections involving long COVID are higher than first-time infections. This is where research has been inconclusive thus far.

“You want to not get it if you can, but I’m not sure I would live in a bubble to try and not get it.” – Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, Infectious Disease Specialist, University of California, San Francisco

Long-Term Health and COVID Recurrence

a vaccine against the risks with repeat COVID infections
What are the risks with repeat COVID infections? We don’t know, but it seems like we will.

In addition to long COVID complaints, there are other potential lasting problems associated with the infection in some people. Specifically, lasting effects on heart, lung, and brain function can occur in a small minority of individuals. As far as existing research, such long-term effects remain rare, and these tend to occur with the most severe cases. However, evidence is emerging that long-term risks with repeat COVID infections could be substantial. If so, this means it remains important to avoid new COVID variants as best as possible.

Though the subject has not been extensively studied, one research endeavor out of the VA is worth noting. In the study, the long-term risks with repeat COVID studies were examined among a large group of veterans. As it turns out, those with two or more COVID bouts had a three times greater risk of heart and lung problems later. Likewise, these same individuals had a 1.5 times greater risk for neurological problems like stroke and brain fog. While the study did only involve an older and mostly male population, the results are still worth noting.

Reducing the Risks of COVID

Based on the current data, the entire risks with repeat COVID infections is not yet known. However, enough information does exist to encourage avoidance of repeat infections, especially with new COVID variants emerging. In this regard, prevention efforts with vaccination should be periodically considered. The next COVID vaccine version to be released is expected sometime this fall. In addition, using common sense to avoid those who are ill and eating outside when possible might be reasonable. This as well as the use of anti-COVID pills offer strategies to deter such complications. As a general rule, it looks like new COVID variants are less of an overall threat. But they might still introduce long-range problems that deserve some effort to avoid them.

 

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