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Could you catch COVID again and again? Reinfections rise in NC, now make up 1 in 6 cases



RALEIGH, N.C. News — More and more people who catch COVID-19 these days have one important thing in common — they’ve had it before.

Every week, reinfections make up an even larger share of the cases reported across North Carolina, making those second-and third-timers the main storyline of the current surge being driven by the BA.5 omicron subvariant.

That rate last week climbed higher than 15 percent — or, nearly 1 in 6 — for the first time. Reinfections accounted for 4,900 of the nearly 32,000 new cases reported from July 24-30 by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

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The rate has gone up every week for three months, has doubled since mid-April and is one of the reasons why the number of North Carolina counties in the CDC’s orange zone with the highest community level of COVID is nearly 17 times higher than it was five weeks ago.

“It’s really important to understand that reinfection happens,” said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

“They’ve had it before, and they get it again,” he added. “And, sometimes, again.”

And it doesn’t just happen in North Carolina. Reports show 1 in 7 cases in California in July was a reinfection, the same proportion in our state that month after in June it was 1 in 9.

NCDHHS counts a case as a reinfection if a person tests positive at least 90 days after an initial positive test.

So what’s driving the increase in them?

First, the emergence of BA.5 is a sign that the virus has adapted to evade immunity — either from previous infection or from vaccination — when it comes to infection, Wohl said.

“There definitely has been a diminishing of the ability of our vaccines to protect against newer variants that have evolved to get around our immunity and evolve to be more catchy,” Wohl said.

Another part of it is simple math: You can’t be reinfected if you haven’t caught it before, and we may be running out of people who have never had it.

“As every person gets infected, we increase the pool of people who are eligible for reinfections, with an ever-dwindling pool of people who have never been infected previously (and that dwindling pool contains the only group who can experience first infections),” Duke epidemiologist Dana Pasquale wrote in an email. “We doubled the pool of ‘ever infected’ people in around 6 weeks with omicron earlier this year, so all of those people can only ever be reinfected going forward.”

The state this week recorded its 3 millionth case, with about 2.9 million of those first-time infections compared to 127,537 known reinfections. 

The pace of reinfection has picked up with the emergence of omicron and its derivatives, with 112,528 reinfections recorded since Jan. 1. The weekly reinfection rate has been no lower than 7 percent for any week this calendar year.

All those reinfections aren’t exactly a surprise, Pasquale wrote, because “infectious disease experts have expected since the start of the pandemic that reinfections were possible since seasonal human coronaviruses and (the original SARS) don’t seem to lead to durable immunity.”

Could an omicron-specific booster shot this fall be the silver bullet? Or will it be too late?

Pfizer and Moderna say they expect to have updated versions of their vaccines available as early as next month to target the latest omicron subvariants, the Food and Drug Administration has said.

Wohl says he expects BA.5 — which accounts for nearly 60 percent of all sequenced samples in the state — to still be the dominant strain by that time.

“What we’re talking about is probably a peanut butter and jelly sandwich of a newer vaccine that protects against BA.5 as well as the original vaccine,” Wohl said. “So we’ll have two vaccines in one. … And that will provide just as much protection as another booster would with an added-on-top-of-that benefit of a vaccine that’s directed more against BA.5.”

CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.

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