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  • Photograph by CDC

Can you get reinfected from COVID-19?

As we enter this new stage of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to make sure we have all the facts before we add another fear to our list of worries.

I recently heard someone exclaim over a Zoom hang with friends: “People are getting reinfected in South Korea!!!” 

The story going around that is causing alarm is that patients in South Korea who have recovered from COVID-19 are now testing positive again. Let’s look into what all of this means, based on the information we have today. 

Do we know for sure people are being reinfected?

There isn’t consensus on whether or not people are actually being reinfected, meaning recovering fully, developing antibodies, and then contracting the virus a second time. 

By and large, it looks like there might be other reasons for the positive tests of those who’ve recently recovered. 

Reinfected refers to people who tested positive, tested negative, and then tested positive again. These tests all happened close together, say some experts, and you have to account for false negatives and other lab errors

Jeong Eun-kyeong, director-general of the Korean CDC, says that “rather than being infected again, the virus may have been reactivated in these people, given they tested positive again shortly after being released from quarantine.” 

Also consider the fact that those who are testing positive again after testing negative aren’t showing symptoms. So they’re not necessarily getting sick all over again.

Our bodies are pretty good at building up immunity to viruses that we’ve been exposed to by developing antibodies. Also, we’ve successfully developed vaccines for all kinds of diseases like Polio, Typhoid, and SmallPox. We do it every year for our seasonal flu. 

But COVID-19 is new. And we’re just seeing the first wave of people recovering. We don’t know what will happen yet. 

The Guardian has a great video explainer if you’re interested in learning more about what virologists around the world are thinking in terms of how our short and long term immunity will work. 

Would we be protected if we went for early herd immunity?

Maybe this idea is finally starting to fade, but in case you’re still wondering, let’s explore why herd immunity isn’t a good solution to not having a vaccination. 

The best demonstration of this we currently have is happening right now in the Nordic countries of Sweden and Norway. By late March, Sweden, a country not practicing strict lockdown measures, is seeing a viral transmission rate of about 2.5. Meaning, for every infected person, they infect almost 2 and a half other people. 

Norway, on the other hand, is seeing a transmission rate of less than 1. They’ve also had significantly stricter measures, more akin to what we’ve been asked to do here, and infection is spreading much slower than in Sweden. 

Side note: Sweden is predicting that half of its entire population will be infected by the end of April. Elderly, infirm, immunocompromised and all. 

The reason transmission rate is so important is that “the faster it spreads, the more condensed the burden of mortality will be and the higher the peak burden hospitals will be forced to endure.” Consider this in light of the fact that Sweden only has 5.8 ICU beds per 100,000 people.  

Compare that with Canada at 12 ICU beds per 100 000 people, and China, who suffered a large loss of life at about 4. 

Guess what? None of these numbers are good. They’re all bad. 

Our collective goal must be to suppress the epidemic as much as possible by planking the curve so we can make sure our hospitals can bear the load

Plainly put: we don’t have enough medical supplies, ICU beds, or even medication to endure a massive surge of infections.

Tonia Thomas of the Vaccine Knowledge Project says that “Vaccines are a safer way to develop immunity, without the risks associated with the disease itself.”  Until we have a vaccine for COVID-19, plan B is in order.

Staying home and practicing proper physical distancing is the best way to protect ourselves, those with compromised immune systems, our neighbours, front-line workers—and to prevent overloading our health care system. 

When I’m fully recovered, am I in the clear?

The World Health Organization says that for those being discharged from care, patients must be clear of symptoms for three days and have 2 negative tests for the virus within 24 hours of each other.  As for how long you could be sick, it varies. 

How sick you can be varies too, and it isn’t dependent on your age, your health, your class, or where in the world you live. If you want to understand how bad it can get, read the story of an otherwise healthy Toronto man who fell ill to the point of intubation and lived to tell about it. Trigger warning. 

Because we don’t have a vaccine yet, and it could be quite some time, it’s really important that we continue to follow the guidelines set out by our public health officials to stay at home, stay six feet apart from others when out for essentials, and always wash your hands. It’s our best chance for reducing infection, overwhelming our health care system, and ensuring that we save as many lives as possible. 

 

Jo Snyder is a seasoned communications professional with expertise on the social determinants of health and health equity. Over her career she's worked with think tanks, non-profits and big tech to deliver comms of all kinds.

This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada.

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