Doctors warn it’s possible to contract COVID twice with variants

Updated: Mar. 16, 2021 at 7:36 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Millions of South Carolinians now have protection from COVID-19 through the vaccine or a previous infection from the virus, but as COVID variants become more widespread in the US many are questioning whether it’s possible to contract COVID-19 twice.

Prisma Health and MUSC doctors warn that as COVID variants become more widespread, re-infection is possible, yet not too worrisome at this time.

“It is clearly possible to get re-infected,” Chair of the Prisma Health-University of South Carolina Medical Group Dr. Helmut Albrecht said. “It is also extraordinarily rare.”

However, MUSC Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Curry warned that re-infection does become a greater concern as variants become more common in the US.

“It’s happening a lot in areas of the world where variants are kind of getting out of control,” Curry said. “For instance, Brazil is having a really rough time with people who documented symptomatic COVID to make them sick twice.”

Curry said he defines a true re-infection as someone who has a high COVID-19 viral load during testing at two separate instances. He said that many people have been known to shed the virus for months even though they are no longer infectious, but he said he only sees one case in South Carolina after looking at thousands of samples that looked like a true re-infection.

“We have detected, at least at MUSC Health, people that continue to test positive on their nose swab or whatever test they are getting. For that PCR test to turn negative, it sometimes takes up to 9 months,” Curry said.

Dr. Albrecht said he also hasn’t seen any true re-infections in South Carolina. He said he believes some people in South Carolina who believe they have had the virus twice have been misdiagnosed.

“They think they had it twice; I just don’t think every flu-like illness that you have in the winter is COVID,” Dr. Albrecht said.

However, Dr. Curry warned this trend could change if the variants become more widespread in South Carolina.

“We really haven’t seen it yet, but I expect we will when the variants of concern really become super commonplace in South Carolina like they already are becoming in Florida and California,” Curry said.

Albrecht said the variants could pose a risk to those who have already been infected.

“When your first immunity is built against a totally different virus than you are exposed to in the second round, that immunity may help you less,” Albrecht said. “Since these variants are new viruses that require a different kind of immunity, the old immunity may not be as effective.”

Curry said the vaccine is essential in protecting against a re-infection from the variant.

“Our long-term threat is the foot race between the vaccines and the variants and I hope that’s one the vaccines will win,” Curry said.

Curry said that evidence shows the vaccine to be effective at protecting against the variants for those who have never been infected, as well as those who have had the dominant strain of the virus. Curry added that another concern with the variants is mounting evidence that those who are infected with the variant are more likely to become severely ill from the virus.

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