Long COVID Risk Makes It Worth Avoiding Second Infections
New research suggests that those infected more than once have an increased risk of developing long COVID and other health problems compared to those infected just once. But parsing out the extent of these risks – particularly with newer variants – is more complicated.
Alexander Truong, MD, has been seeing long COVID patients for more than 2 years but thought the numbers would have significantly dwindled by now. Instead, a steady flow of patients still shows up at the Emory Executive Park post-COVID clinic he and a colleague launched in fall 2020 in Atlanta. And among patients infected more than once, the symptoms appear worse.
“We are definitely seeing a lot of patients who, when they get reinfected, have worsening post-COVID issues. That’s very true and I think that’s a big signal,” says Truong, a pulmonologist and an assistant professor at Emory University’s School of Medicine.
COVID-19 is definitely not over, says Angela Cheung, MD, PhD, a senior physician scientist with the University Health Network and a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. And each time someone gets infected, they risk developing long COVID. A prior infection does not erase the risk, Cheung says.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’ve had one, so it’s OK. Now I can take off my mask, do what I like.’ It has health consequences for reinfections – higher mortality rate, higher hospitalization rates, higher risk of long term, lingering symptoms,” she says.
New research suggests that those infected more than once have an increased risk of developing long COVID and other health problems compared to those infected just once. But parsing out the extent of these risks – particularly with newer variants – is more complicated, Truong and other experts say, particularly when factoring in vaccinations and antiviral treatments.
“It makes sense that repeat infections would not be beneficial to a person's health. But I think it's really hard to know what the additional risk of each subsequent infection would be because there are all sorts of other things in the mix,” says Michael Peluso, MD, an assistant professor of medicine and an infectious diseases doctor at the University of California San Francisco.
“There are vaccines -- new vaccines, old vaccines. There are variants -- old variants, new variants, and now multiple variants circulating at the same time.”
Veterans Affairs Study
A large study involving the records of 5.8 million Department of Veterans Affairs patients that was published in Nature Medicine in November found that patients infected more than once had significantly higher risks of death, hospitalization, heart problems, blood clotting, long COVID, and a host of other health issues and organ damage. Notably, the study found that these elevated risks remained even 6 months after reinfection.