Is it possible to get COVID a 3rd time? Just ask Dr. Lloyd Finks…

August 25, 2022

[Spoiler alert. I’m writing this propped up on three pillows in a dark, stuffy room, isolated from the air conditioning and much-needed visits from my dog pal. The cat has figured his way in. That’s what cats do.]

Question 1: Can I be reinfected with COVID-19?

Yes, you can. While the medical community first hoped during those early months of the pandemic that surviving COVID might be a “one and done,” it quickly became evident that this coronavirus was quite different from the others that cause colds and other respiratory infections. COVID-19 is adept at producing subtle variants that can bypass even recently activated immune systems.

In September 2020, an actively ill COVID-positive patient coughed directly onto my masked face. Five days later, I was sick. COVID 1 was just a bad cold, and I took it like a man: I stayed in bed for most of that week, snuffling, sneezing, and coughing dramatically.

Question #2: How soon can I be reinfected?

This is a very difficult question to answer because it’s impossible to control for all the many variables that lead to a measurable infection. Generally, an acute infection, especially in an otherwise healthy, vaccinated, and boosted individual, should confer around 3-6 months of immunity. (“Generally,” that is. As they say on TV, “Your results may vary.” There are anecdotes of patients being re-infected in as little as 3-4 weeks.)

Because the vaccine was still in very short supply, and I figured that I now had natural immunity, I decided to wait until April 2021 to get immunized. My decision made sense at the time. Our best data then suggested that the vaccine provided about six months’ protection, and I figured that I could count on at least that same period of immunity from a full-blown native infection. That didn’t pan out. During the third week of March, just before I was scheduled to get my first vaccination, I tested positive again.

Question #3: If I do get reinfected, will the symptoms be better or worse?

You might have noticed considerable disagreement about virtually all things COVID, and reinfection symptoms are no different. The general consensus has been that reinfection, especially in persons with strong immune systems, should have predictably milder symptoms. The truth is, while you are less likely to have severe symptoms, it’s unpredictable. Symptoms depend on the variant, the viral load, and the patient’s overall health and immune response.

COVID 2, for me, was a train wreck. I don’t recall too much of that first week, but Shannon tells me that I had terrible muscle and joint aches, shaking chills that would come and go, GI issues, and increasing shortness of breath. And I wasn’t getting any better. Worse, our laboratory reported a variant previously unknown in our region, so we had no idea what to expect. I wound up in the hospital and, after discharge, began a slow recovery that has taken almost a full year to approach what I would consider “normal” for me.

Question 4: What can I do to prevent re-infection?

Start with some good, clean living! Optimize your nutrition, get some exercise, and get plenty of rest. That simple plan will go a long way to making your immune system as strong as it can be.

And then, avoid exposure! Ah, if it were only so simple. Continuing to avoid close contact with others, especially in crowds, and masking up whenever possible sounds like a good plan. Sooner or later, however, you’ll have to lower that mask to eat. And who wants to visit elderly relatives or tell the kids a bedtime story wearing a mask? True, but you also can’t be certain that your 93-year-old Auntie nor your 3-year-old preschooler aren’t infected. Each of us has to find our personal comfort zone for potential exposure. One size doesn’t fit all.

I have been accused of being overly cautious. All of our onsite clinic staff are fully vaccinated and boosted and we continue to mask and require the same of patients and visitors. But, just over the past two weeks, I’ve begun testing the waters to see if we might adjust our mask requirements to reflect the times. I’ve even taken a couple of walks up front unmasked, just to say hello and gauge reactions. And, we’ve started to give guests the option to freestyle (maskwise, that is).

Last Thursday evening, I left work feeling just a little achy. Within two hours, I was in bed and “dog sick” (as we like to say here in the South) and COVID antigen test positive.

Question #5: Are certain people more likely to be reinfected?

The United States government isn’t tracking reinfection rates, but the UK has some interesting data. From their observations, you are more likely to be reinfected if you: 1) Are NOT vaccinated; 2) Are younger; 3) Had a mild or asymptomatic infection previously, or 4) Had a lower viral load. Numbers 3 and 4 are interesting, as it’s thought that more severe infections, typically with higher viral loads, confer a more robust immune response and, therefore, longer immunity.

COVID 3 has been much kinder. I handed treatment to my very experienced staff who followed our current algorithm for the Omicron 5 variant (my particular variant is still pending as of this posting). Day 3 was my worst day, and I started Paxlovid because I didn’t seem to be improving. Today has been much better. I’m finishing day 5 of my anticipated 5-day isolation at home and plan to be back at work tomorrow, wearing a mask of course.

Question #6 (Bonus): If I am re-infected, can I still pass COVID to others?

Absolutely. Yes. Of course. (You already knew that, didn’t you?)

We sincerely hope that you do not experience COVID reinfection, nor any infection for that matter. But, if you fall ill or hurt yourself, and happen to be in the Memphis area, give us a call at 901 701-7010 or check out our COVID Care page which is a great resource. We will find a way to help.