With nearly 85,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, across the United States as of March 27, more and more states and cities have implemented shelter-in-place measures to encourage their residents to stay at home and practice social distancing. But given the recent rise of the new virus, there's still a lot we don't know. As the infection rate fluctuates and some sick people begin to recover, a lot of people are wondering, can you get coronavirus twice? The data is limited.
According to Vincent Racaniello, Ph.D, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University, the traditional wisdom around viral infections is that people develop immunity to them once they are infected and recovered. "That way, you’re not reinfected — or if you are, you get much milder disease," Racaniello tells Elite Daily. "I think it’s clear that the vast majority of people who have been infected are not getting infected again." Think of the chicken pox, also caused by a virus — once you get it as a kid, you're usually in the clear for life.
But people are still concerned. In China, Japan, and South Korea, there have been reports of coronavirus patients who were declared recovered by their doctors, per the Los Angeles Times, only to test positive for the virus again in subsequent days. However, experts doubt these are true reinfections. Instead, Racaniello says, it's possible that false negatives — in which coronavirus patients mistakenly obtain negative test results, but actually still have the virus — could have something to do with these reinfection cases. Indeed, the LA Times reported, scientists both in China and elsewhere suspect testing errors are to blame. Either patients may have been released from hospitals too early due to false negatives, they say, or their retests actually yielded false positives when they no longer had the virus.
Still, experts cannot say with certainty reinfection from the coronavirus is impossible, largely because they don't have enough data to draw conclusions about it. But according to Racaniello, even if reinfections were possible, they wouldn't occur so quickly. "Even in some cases where you might get reinfected after recovering, the infection should be much, much milder, if in fact that happens," Racaniello says. "But that shouldn’t happen within weeks of your first infection. It’s something that can happen a year or two later."
Dr. Adolfo García-Sastre, a microbiology professor and director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine, tells Elite Daily via email that while scientists don't know for sure you can't get the coronavirus twice, "experiments in animals and experience from previous related viruses suggest that either you do not get infected again once infected," or if you do, "the disease is milder and the ability to infect other people decreases."
Karen Levy, Ph.D, an epidemiologist and associate professor of environmental health at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health, also points to testing in animals as evidence that reinfections for diseases like the coronavirus are rare. "There was also an animal study where researchers tried to infect rhesus macaques with SARS-CoV-2," Levy tells Elite Daily via email, using the official scientific designation for the novel coronavirus. "The monkeys were affected by a first infection, but did not have any symptoms when the researchers exposed them to the virus a second time."
That doesn't mean that previously sick people are in the clear to be out and about as soon as they feel better. The CDC has recommended everyone practice social distancing by avoiding unnecessary contact with others, regardless of whether they feel sick or not. Even if you contract the virus and recover, you should still practice social distancing, per the CDC. You can discontinue complete home isolation, however, if you test negative for the virus upon recovery. If you don't get another test after catching and recovering from the virus, the CDC recommends talking to your doctor and only discontinuing home isolation if you have no fever for three full days, your symptoms have improved, and it has been at least seven days since your symptoms first started.
As with an any new outbreak or infectious disease, it's difficult to draw conclusions about the coronavirus when it hasn't been around for very long. A combination of test shortages and insufficient data make it nearly impossible to prove the coronavirus doesn't cause reinfections. For now, experts appear to cautiously agree that you are unlikely to catch the coronavirus a second time — especially so soon after getting it the first time — but none of them can make a call with 100% certainty.
In the meantime, of course, you can still protect yourself. According to the CDC, the best way to protect yourself is to avoid being exposed to this virus, which and you can do by avoiding non-essential outings and contact with others. You should also frequently wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, regularly clean high-touch surfaces in your home, stay home if you're sick, and continue practicing basic hygiene.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.
Vincent Racaniello, Ph.D, Higgins Professor of microbiology and immunology at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Dr. Adolfo García-Sastre, microbiology professor and director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine
Karen Levy, Ph.D, MPH, associate professor of Environmental Health at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health