At an earlier moment in the pandemic, scientists published heartening research that found that people infected with COVID-19 were protected from getting the virus again for at least six months.
But the highly contagious omicron variant has raised fresh questions about COVID reinfection — like whether you can be infected with a new form of the virus if you’ve already recovered, or how long your increased immunity might last.
Wondering about COVID reinfection during the omicron surge? Here’s what we know now.
Experts believe reinfection is possible with omicron
The initial research published on reinfection came out in a pretty different context, when new variants were more of a hypothetical than a daily reality. Since then, alpha, delta and now omicron have transformed the pandemic.
Omicron, in particular, is different than the rest. It has more mutations than delta and it’s more transmissible. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, has said that omicron is “very different” from previous strains.
So it is not necessarily surprising that initial reports from the United Kingdom suggest there has been a three- to eight-fold increase in reinfection from the omicron variant as compared to other variants — though those reports are preliminary.
“There is still no data regarding protection for omicron after natural infection with prior strains,” Carla Garcia Carreño, chief of infectious disease at Children’s Medical Center Plano, told HuffPost. “What makes omicron very contagious are the changes in the spike protein of the virus, the part of the virus that binds human cells before infecting them. These mutations or changes make the virus very ‘sticky,’ so it attaches to cells easier with increased transmissibility.”
Of course, not every COVID lab test is sent for genetic sequencing to determine what variant a person has — and many people are now using rapid antigen tests at home. Still, given omicron’s dominance at the moment, it’s safe to assume that’s the variant you’ve got if you’re infected right now, Carreño said.
When you’re vulnerable to reinfection is still unclear
One of the most pressing questions about reinfection is what the timeline might be — and for now, experts say we really don’t know. You’re probably safe for at least a couple of months, but again, that’s just a best guess at this point.
“In general, after infection with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), it is rare to see reinfections within a three month period in people whose immune system is intact,” Carreño said. “It is important, however, to remember that current COVID-19 vaccines — especially after receiving the booster — perform well to protect against omicron.”
Previous studies have shown that people who are vaccinated and who’ve also had COVID may be more protected than those who are just vaccinated. Multiple exposures to vaccines and viruses can help boost immunity, but only up to a point.
As Katherine Wu recently wrote in The Atlantic: “No combinations of vaccines or viruses can confer invulnerability to future tussles with SARS-CoV-2. Whether acquired from an injection or an infection, immunity will always work in degrees, not absolutes.”
Your best bet? Get vaccinated and boosted, and continue to mask up
People who’ve had COVID and recovered should still get vaccinated and boosted if they haven’t (unless they’re currently sick with the virus).
While it might feel disappointing to have to continue masking up in public settings if you’ve already been vaccinated and boosted and have recovered from an infection, that really is your best bet when it comes to protecting yourself and others.
And remember: The vaccines continue to do an excellent job of protecting people against getting really sick, even if you are infected with the newer omicron variant. So even if you do get COVID ― whether it’s again or for the first time ― if you’re vaccinated, you’re unlikely to get seriously ill.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.