WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – As research of COVID-19 continues, there is one thing experts know for sure: you can get the virus twice.
Right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC) is working to learn more about reinfection to let the public know how to take action. Studies are being done to understand how likely reinfection is, how often reinfection occurs, how soon after the first infection reinfection can take place, and how severe the cases of reinfection are.
Dr. Paul Kamitsuka, NHRMC’s chief epidemiologist and an infectious disease physician with Wilmington Health, says COVID-19 reinfections aren’t common, but they can occur.
“We know this, for sure, because of a recent report from Hong Kong,” said Kamitsuka. “There was a fellow who developed symptomatic COVID and recovered. And then, four and a half months later, he was returning to Hong Kong, and they screened him at the airport. And at that time, he was totally without symptoms, but his test was positive and they were able to isolate the virus with which he was infected. And, they were able to compare the genetic sequence of that virus compared to the previous virus that he had four and a half months before and realize they were different viruses, that the new virus had mutations. So it was clearly different from the first one. So, that was the first really convincing example that reinfection can occur.”
Kamitsuka says he thinks the perception of reinfection occurring is because of the nature of the test that’s done to make the diagnosis of COVID-19.
“The problem with the PCR test is that once you’re positive, you can stay positive for months afterwards,” said Kamitsuka “So if you present later, with symptoms, that could be COVID. You may still test positive not because you’ve got a new COVID infection, but it was residual positive from the previous time. And that creates a lot of confusion.”
He went on to say that there are ways that we can decipher which case it is by looking specifically at how much virus appears to be present the second time.
“If it appears to be a minuscule amount, and in all likelihood it was past infection, the patient doesn’t have current infection. The symptoms are due to something else,” said Kamitsuka. “And moreover, the patient is not contagious. But that makes it very difficult sometimes to sort out. And so people may have the perception that I got…I tested positive twice…when in fact, they did that.”
75-year-old Linda Blanchette battled COVID over the summer. She wasn’t sure if it was a fight she was going to win.
“I had COVID,” said Banchette. “I had no idea. I’m thinking, all this time, it was probably the cancer treatment.”
She isn’t sure where she got it, but she was spending time in the hospital, prior to getting infected, for her bone marrow cancer. She ended up spending 35 days in a hospital bed at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center. She’s now back in her Sunset Beach home and feeling better. At least she thought she was until Thanksgiving weekend.
“My husband and I were eating a piece of pumpkin pie and all of a sudden I couldn’t taste it,” said Blanchette. “And I thought, well, this isn’t right. And then I tried to smell it. And it’s like, I can’t smell it and I can’t taste it. So I just knew that I had gotten it again.”
Luckily, she got tested and it was negative. But getting reinfected is a true fear for Blanchette.
“I was so afraid that if I got it again, I wouldn’t be able to fight it off,” said Blanchette. She says the vaccine couldn’t get here at a better time. She’s hoping she can get it before late spring. But regardless, she wants to be first in line to get the shot.
Locally, Kamitsuka said there are some people in our area who are suspected of having infections; but, it turns out they don’t, based on their second test. As of Monday, New Hanover County Public Health does not have record of any residents who have had COVID-19 being re-infected after recovering.
Kamitsuka says people don’t have durable immunity because we can get infected with the common cold over and over again. And that has the same implications for the vaccine; how long is vaccine immunity going to be good for?
“That, we don’t know,” said Kamitsuka.
The best advice he could share is wear your mask. Even if you’ve had the virus before, wear it anyway. And Blanchette agrees.
“If I went out anywhere, I had a mask on,” said Blanchette. “But you just don’t realize who you walk by, who sits near you, that they could be a carrier. So you just don’t know. I mean, you have to take the time to put this little mask on. Because this mask, it’s not as bad as the one that I had to wear in the hospital. Believe me, this is [the] easier way to go.”
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