Over COVID? Doctors warn multiple infections can lead to organ failure, even death

ST. LOUIS — It may be cold and flu season, but COVID-19 is still an issue, and a new report finds contracting the virus more than once can double your risk of dying.

Scientists from the Washington University School of Medicine say suffering multiple bouts of COVID raises the risk of organ failure, ending up in hospital, and premature death. This is because COVID can cause problems in the lungs, heart, brain, blood, musculoskeletal system, and digestive system, according to the academics.

People who dealt with reinfection after an initial coronavirus case were twice as likely to die and three times more likely to need hospitalization than those who only dealt with COVID once.

Those infected repeatedly were three-and-a-half times more likely to end up with lung problems, three times more likely to develop a heart condition, and one-and-a-half times more likely to develop brain issues compared to those who only had COVID once.

2 COVID infections is bad, but 3 is even worse

The risk appears to increase with each infection, meaning people who have had the virus twice should try to avoid a third infection. Researchers say their findings suggest people should remain “vigilant” and continue to wear masks and get boosters.

“During the past few months, there’s been an air of invincibility among people who have had COVID-19 or their vaccinations and boosters, and especially among people who have had an infection and also received vaccines; some people started to referring to these individuals as having a sort of superimmunity to the virus,” says senior author Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, a clinical epidemiologist at the School of Medicine in a university release.

“Without ambiguity, our research showed that getting an infection a second, third or fourth time contributes to additional health risks in the acute phase, meaning the first 30 days after infection, and in the months beyond, meaning the long COVID phase.”

“This means that even if you’ve had two COVID-19 infections, it’s better to avoid a third,” Al-Aly continues. “And if you’ve had three infections, it’s best to avoid the fourth.”

“People should do their best to prevent repeat infections by masking, for example, getting all of their eligible boosters, staying home when sick. Also, get a flu shot to prevent illness. We really need to do our best to reduce the chance we will have a twin-demic of both COVID-19 and the flu this winter season,” the researcher recommends.

Some people have contracted illness 4 times already

For the study, the team analyzed around 5.8 million anonymized medical records from a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs database. Participants included men and women of all ages and races.

Researchers also looked at data on 5.3 million people who did not test positive for the virus between March 1, 2020 and April 6, 2022. Additionally, the team examined data on a control group of 443,000 people who tested positive once and 41,000 people who contracted COVID at least twice. In the latter group, most suffered two or three infections and a small number contracted COVID four times. There were no cases involving people catching COVID five or more times.

The team used models to work out the health risks of repeat coronavirus infections within 30 days of catching the bug and up to six months after. Infections came from a range of variants including Delta and Omicron. Negative outcomes occurred among the unvaccinated as well as people who received the COVID-19 vaccine before their reinfection.

“Our findings have broad public health implications as they tell us that strategies to prevent or reduce the risk of reinfection should be implemented,” Al-Aly concludes. “Going into the winter season, people should be aware of the risks and practice vigilance to reduce their risk of infection or reinfection with SARS-CoV-2.”

The findings are published in the journal Nature Medicine.

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.

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