Study finds COVID-19 reinfections can be risky

Reinfections have become frustratingly common this summer.

Some people are testing positive for COVID-19 not once, but twice, even three or four times.

In recent study researchers at Washington University and the VA St. Louis Health Care System looked at health data from more than 5.6 million US veterans and found each COVID-19 reinfection raised the risk health problems and long haul COVID.

Newnan Family Medicine's Dr. Cecil Bennett says the study findings are concerning.

"I look at it the same way I look at secondhand smoke," Dr. Bennett says. "The more you're exposed to secondhand smoke, the more your risk of eventually getting lung cancer.  COVID is serious, and it's not something we should get over and over again, and we should do everything in our power to prevent getting infected."

Repeat infections have become more common with the highly-contagious BA.5 Omicron variant, which is able to infect people who have been vaccinated and boosted.

The study found the cumulative risk of health problems remained consistent whether or not the veterans were vaccinated.

It is difficult to gauge how common reinfections are, because many Americans are using home tests, which are not included in the official case counts.

Kaiser Permanente Georgia epidemiologist and physician Dr. Felipe Lobelo says with so much virus making the rounds, most of us are going to be repeatedly exposed to it.

"But it's better if you have COVID once or twice versus four or five times, because every time you get COVID, you're going to be at risk of developing these long COVID symptoms," Lobelo says.

Long COVID can include a range of health problems that linger for weeks, months, even years.

Dr. Lobelo says this virus can infect many kinds of cells in the body.

"It's not just respiratory cells, it's a virus that can affect your liver and your pancreas, it can get into your kidneys, your brain," he says.  "That creates a cascade of potential risk factors that will lead to heart disease and diabetes and other potential conditions in your future."

So, how can we protect ourselves against reinfection?

Dr. Lobelo says pay attention to the patterns of the pandemic, you will see the virus come in surges, with typically last about six to eight weeks.

"So, when you hear about that we're going through a surge in infections, it's a good to take some precautions: avoiding crowded indoor places, using high quality masks," he says.

The current COVID-19 vaccines are still effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalizations, but they are less effective at preventing infection.

More targeted boosters, which could be coming in the fall, may do a better job of protecting against infection and reinfection.

"But for the foreseeable future, I still take precautions, because I don't want to be exposed to a virus that can have lingering health consequences," Dr. Lobelo says.