Recurrence of COVID is riskier than first infection, study reveals

Recurrence of COVID is riskier than first infection, study reveals

Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The risk of death, hospitalization and serious health problems from COVID-19 jumps significantly with reinfection compared with a first bout of the virus, regardless of vaccination status, a study showed on Thursday.

“Reinfection with COVID-19 increases the risk of acute outcomes and long-term COVID,” said Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “This was evident in unvaccinated, vaccinated and boosted people.”

The findings were drawn from US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) data collected from March 1, 2020, to April 6, 2022, on 443,588 patients with one SARS-CoV-2 infection, 40,947 with two or more infections, and 5.3 million uninfected person. Most of the respondents were men.

Reinfected patients had more than doubled the risk of death and more than tripled the risk of hospitalization compared to those who had been infected with COVID only once. They also had an increased risk for lung, heart, blood, kidney, diabetes, mental health, bone and muscle, and neurological disorders, according to a report published in Nature Medicine.

“Even if someone had a previous infection and was vaccinated — meaning they had double immunity from the previous infection plus the vaccine — they are still susceptible to negative outcomes after reinfection,” said Al-Aly, the study leader.

People in the study with repeated infections were more than three times more likely to develop lung problems, three times more likely to suffer from heart disease and 60% more likely to experience neurological disorders than patients who were infected only once. The higher risks were most pronounced in the first month after reinfection, but were still evident six months later, the researchers found.

Experts not involved in the study said the VA population does not reflect the general population.

Patients at VA health care facilities tend to be older, sicker people and often men, a group that would typically have more than normal health complications, said John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

The researchers said that the cumulative risks and burden of re-infection increased with the number of infections, even after accounting for differences in COVID-19 variants such as Delta, Omicron and BA.5.

However, dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease epidemiologist and editor-in-chief at Kaiser Health News, said there appears to be a “plateau effect with multiple infections,” with a smaller spike in risk after a second infection.

“The good news is that the better people are protected by immunity, the risk of developing some complications over time is likely to be lower,” she added.

However, Al-Aly warned that people should not let their guard down.

“We started to see a lot of patients coming to the clinic with an air of invincibility,” he told Reuters. “They asked themselves, ‘Does re-infection really matter?’ The answer is yes, absolutely it is.”

Ahead of the fast-approaching holiday season with travel and indoor gatherings, “people should be aware that re-infection is consequential and should take precautions,” he added.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid, additional reporting by Raghav Mahoba in Bengaluru; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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