A critical care nurse, administers an anti-viral medication to a COVID-19 positive patient.

Hoping that your next bout of COVID-19 will be milder than your first? Early research suggests it could be worse

Early research suggests that if you contract COVID-19 more than once, you are more likely to develop serious health problems.

Re-infections of the virus are increasing in Australia following the growth of two sub-variants of Omicron, BA.4 and BA.5, which are expected to soon become the most dominant strains of COVID-19.

There had been hope that the health risks associated with contracting COVID-19 would diminish with subsequent infections.

But Nancy Baxter of the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne said early research, based on data collected from the Database of the US Department of Veterans Affairsshowed that this was not the case.

The research, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, shows that while there are some benefits to immunity from contracting the virus, the likelihood of negative health effects increases with each subsequent infection.

“You’re still at risk for things like breathing problems, shortness of breath, problems with your heart, prolonged COVID and…a higher risk of death than you might expect,” said Professor Baxter.

“Which means the more often you get it, the more likely you are to experience a real negative consequence of having COVID-19 at some point.”

In addition, the immunity benefits of contracting the virus diminish over time, making reinfections more and more likely.

“The first month and probably up to the first few months after you have Omicron, you have some protection against getting it, but after that it wears off quickly,” said Professor Baxter.

Although the study included more than 5.5 million people, only 10 percent (566,020) were women, which means there is a chance of an inaccurate representation in a more balanced population.

A woman poses against a colorful background for a portrait
Nancy Baxter, head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, said it’s important that people get their booster shot.Delivered

dr. Deepti Gurdarasani of Queen Mary University of London agreed that while the research has some caveats, the findings have important implications for how we think about COVID-19 reinfections.

“Clearly the ‘reinfection is benign’ or ‘mild’ story doesn’t really hold true,” she said on Twitter.

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Hole in Australian data

More than 20,000 reinfections have been recorded in Victoria through data matching processes.

In New South Wales, that figure is over 11,300, nearly half of which happened after the Omicron variant emerged last November.

But Professor Baxter said those numbers were a significant underestimate.

“The numbers we have aren’t great because reinfection isn’t well recorded, especially since they don’t now allow you to pick up a second infection with COVID-19 if you’ve had it within four months.”

COVID-19 infections under reported

The official number of daily COVID-19 infections is around 30,000, which is much lower than the peak of more than 100,000 in early 2022.

But Professor Baxter warned that the official numbers were also a big underestimate.

“We don’t think they are being recorded with the same accuracy as in the past,” she said.

“We know that PCR tests are harder to get…not everyone registers their rapid antigen tests and not everyone even does COVID-19 testing.”

With mask-wear declining and community immunity waning from its January peak, Professor Baxter said she expects infections and deaths to continue to rise.

“We had a period of about six weeks where the numbers gradually decreased. Now we are seeing a flip side of that trend where the numbers are increasing again,” she said.

Professor Baxter echoed other epidemiologists who have called for greater focus on mask wearing and air filtration to reduce transmission.

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