Covid Reinfections May Boost Chances Of Death And Organ Failure, Study Finds — And The Risk Increases Each Time You Catch It

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Topline

Each Covid infection may increase the risk of developing a suite of health issues like diabetes, kidney disease, organ failure and mental health problems, according to research published in Nature Medicine on Thursday, firmly dispelling the myth that repeated brushes with the virus are mild as cases tick up across the U.S.

Key Facts

The study, based on the health records of nearly 5.8 million people treated under the Veterans Affairs Health system, found that people with multiple Covid infections had a higher risk of numerous health problems—including issues affecting the lungs, heart, brain and gastrointestinal system—up to six months after their last infection.

Those with multiple infections were twice as likely to die and three times more likely to be hospitalized compared to people with just one infection, the researchers found.

They were also three times more likely to suffer from heart conditions, three and a half times more likely to develop lung problems and more than one and a half times more likely to experience brain conditions than people with only one infection, the researchers said.

Unvaccinated and previously people were both at greater risk from reinfections, the study found, and the research accounted for multiple Covid variants including delta, omicron and the now-dominant BA.5.

The risk of developing other health conditions appears to increase with each infection, said Washington University in St. Louis epidemiologist Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, the study’s senior author, meaning it is best to avoid catching it again.

Masking, staying home when sick and getting all eligible booster shots can help cut the risk of reinfection, Al-Aly said.

Crucial Quote

Al-Aly said there has been “an air of invincibility” in recent months among people who have had Covid, been vaccinated and boosted or, particularly, have been both vaccinated and infected. Some have started referring to this latter group as if they have some sort of “superimmunity,” Al-Aly said. “Without ambiguity, our research showed that getting an infection a second, third or fourth time contributes to additional health risks,” Al-Aly added, calling on people to be vigilant and implement strategies to reduce the risk of infection.

Key Background

In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was hoped that vaccines and prior infections would protect against infection. This hope has not borne out. Though vaccines and previous infection help slash the risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death from Covid, they do little to guard against infection itself. The emergence of new, evasive variants compounds the issue. The research dispels the notion that Covid reinfections are mild and of little consequence and suggests each infection can add new risk that builds up over time. These health issues sit alongside the litany of enduring health issues—including mental health problems, brain fog, fatigue, breathing issues and memory problems—associated with long Covid, which is a possibility each time someone encounters the virus.

What We Don’t Know

The health risks of many Covid reinfections are not clear. Though the research showed the escalating risks of multiple reinfections, most people studied had caught Covid only two or three times. A small number of people in the study had four infections and none had five or more. This will need to be investigated over time as more people are infected multiple times. It’s possible this elevated risk may fade over time—the study only covered up to six months after infection—and it is possible other explanations could exist for the risk observed. The study is observational, for example, meaning it cannot determine cause and effect, and it’s possible that reinfection is not random and occurs more frequently in people who already have higher health risks.

Further Reading

Medium COVID Could Be the Most Dangerous COVID (Atlantic)

Does My Mask Protect Me if Nobody Else Is Wearing One? (NYT)

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