Angelina Friedman is a fighter. She survived the 1918 Spanish Flu. She beat cancer. And in 2020, she’s reported to have defeated COVID-19 not once but twice — the first time in March and then again in October.
Oh, and she’s also 102 years old.
Angelina Friedman’s story is inspiring and downright impressive. More than that, though, it begs the question that many have been wondering since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — can you catch the illness twice?
According to this story among others, the answer is yes. But things get a little more complicated when you consider that some of these supposed reinfections may have been a result of patients being told they were free from the virus — only to end up remaining infected all along. Plus, because a COVID-19 test can’t tell the difference between the live virus and the dead virus, you can test positive for weeks or even months without being infectious.
Still, health experts say reinfection would not be surprising, though most likely rare.
Whether or not reinfection is possible is critical because of its impact on:
- Who is at risk of catching — and spreading — the virus
- Stay-at-home orders and restrictions on gatherings
- How a vaccine will need to be administered and how often
Because COVID-19 is a brand new infection, there’s still a lot we don’t know, including whether or not you can become immune and therefore avoid reinfection. But we do know quite a bit about immunity in general, which may provide more insight into the virus that causes COVID-19.
COVID-19 And Immunity: How Do You Become Immune?
When you come face to face with an infection, your immune system kicks in to protect you. This happens in two parts:
- The innate immune response, which releases chemicals that cause inflammation and white blood cells to kill infected cells.
- The adaptive immune response, causing cells to make targeted antibodies (proteins created by the immune system to fight infections), which attach to the virus in order to stop it, and T cells, which attack only the cells infected with the virus.
The innate immune response is always at the ready to protect you — but it doesn’t learn about specific viruses, and it won’t provide future immunity.
The adaptive immune response does learn, though, given enough time. Studies have shown that it can take roughly 10 days for a person infected with COVID-19 to start making antibodies that target the virus.
So far, people who become the sickest with COVID-19 also often develop the most robust immune response. If this response is strong enough, your immune system may remember the infection, which could protect you should you come into contact with the virus again.
How Long Does Immunity To COVID-19 Last?
Here’s where things get a little tricky. Just like you can remember every single lyric to your favorite song but can’t remember your password to check your cable bill, your immune system remembers some infections well — but it forgets others quite easily.
For instance, measles tends to be pretty memorable. Having it once (or getting the MMR vaccine) usually provides you with life-long immunity.
As for COVID-19, not enough time has passed to know for certain how well your immune system will remember it. One study (which is comprehensive and long-ranging — but not yet peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal) suggested most people have immunity eight months after infection.
However, one woman from the Netherlands was reported to have tested positive for COVID-19 on April 17, 2020, then negative just a few weeks later. But after a few months — on July 3 — she became sick and tested positive yet again. A man in Nevada — the first confirmed reinfection case in the US — tested positive in April, negative on two subsequent occasions, and positive once again in June.
Clearly, how long your immune system remembers the virus that causes COVID-19 is yet to be determined. However, with countries worldwide confirming reinfections, it seems that you can get COVID-19 twice. And while it does appear to be rare, health experts suspect there may be more cases than currently reported. This is due to labs lacking the time and resources to confirm that it’s rare.
The Bottom Line: Patience And Protection
At the beginning of 2020, there was plenty of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. Since then, there has been incredible, life-saving progress.
Medical professionals have identified more effective ways to treat those infected with COVID-19, researchers have developed vaccines in record-breaking time, and everyone has learned how critical social distancing and wearing a mask are. (Still, we could probably use a little more effort in that last arena.)
But when it comes to possible reinfection and immunity from COVID-19, time will tell. For now, whether or not you’ve been infected in the past, the best way to protect both yourself and others is to wash your hands, wear a mask, and stay at home as much as possible.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, much of the fight against COVID-19 has been about patience — with science, with each other, and with ourselves. As a return to normalcy becomes closer in reach, stay home, stay safe, and stay patient.