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How many times can you get COVID?

Jana Shortal spoke with Mayo Clinic's Dr. Bill Morice to explain why immunity to one COVID variant doesn't mean immunity to all.

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Omicron was a gamechanger and in its wake we are seeing variants of it — and those variants can catch you even if you got omicron, and even if you have been vaccinated.

"If you think of a lock and key it's like subtle changes," says Mayo Clinic Dr. Bill Morice. "If your immune response is a lock, and the virus is the key, there are some viruses that will change a little bit, so the key doesn't fit in the lock which means your immune system doesn't recognize it and you get re-infected."

And with each change, you are able to get that changed virus.

Immunity to one doesn't mean immunity to all.

"So if a person has been infected multiple times, does that mean definitively that they are being infected by a different variant each time or we don't know?" asked KARE 11's Jana Shortal. 

"We don't know," says Dr. Morice. "I mean, you presume if it's someone that really has a normal immune response, meaning they're not on immunosuppressant medications or having some kind of inborn problem with immune responsiveness, immune deficiency is the way to say that, yeah, they can get re-infected with the same pathogen and same strain multiple times, but for most of us, it's like the common cold where it's changing enough that it can re-infect, so probably you're getting a different strain if you get re-infected."

None of this means, well, vaccines don't work.

Because, as has been stated over and over, vaccines — we've known for some time — are here to keep us from dying or getting really sick. What they can't do is immunize us to all of COVID's variants.

And, with that truth, where does that leave us with vaccines?

"There is a lot of debate now I think in the pharmaceutical community about developing vaccines specific to the new strains, but the problem is that by the time these are approved, it's already moved on," says Dr. Morice. "Even with omicron, it keeps making changes so that's what might be just a re-thinking of the vaccine strategy overall, and maybe not chasing the strains as it's kind of like a dog chasing its tail...might never catch it."

And one other early COVID hope we likely won't achieve...herd immunity.

"That's unfortunately off the table and we should just be honest about that and it's about managing COVID," Dr. Morice says. 

Herd immunity isn't possible with a virus mutating as fast as this one does, just like we never get herd immunity from a constantly changing flu virus, or common cold virus.  

And one more note about infections: those numbers really are just an indicator, but not an absolute total — since most people test for COVID at home and those results when positive aren't usually reported.  

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