Can COVID-19 be obtained twice? A veteran at the Holyoke Soldiers Home who had apparently recovered from positive virus tests

When asked if state officials believe the man had been infected a second time, Brooke Karanovich, a spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said: “We don’t know the answer to that. That is one of the things about the pandemic: that it is new. We don’t know exactly what this is. “

Experts said it is possible, but rare, for people to become infected and ill with the coronavirus more than once.

Reinfection “is not the rule, it is the exception,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health.

Mina compared the immune system to memory. Some people need to study a fact more than once before they can retain it, and some need to face a virus multiple times before developing a strong immune response. That is why many vaccines require booster doses to be effective.

Also, he said, both immunity and memory decline with age. Just as an older person may forget someone’s name, their immune system may not recognize a virus they have encountered before. This happens with many infections, not only with the coronavirus.

Another possible explanation for the veteran’s illness, Mina said, is that the original virus remained dormant in his body for a time and then reappeared. You may also have contracted an unrelated disease, and your COVID-19 test tested positive because the virus fragments from the first infection remained harmless in your body.

No one has solid documentation that anyone has had COVID-19 more than once, said Marc Lipsitch, director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard school of public health.

Korean health authorities reviewed more than 100 cases of people who tested positive, then negative, and then positive again. “It could all be explained as false negatives or the virus starts replicating again after being at a lower level,” Lipsitch said.

Holyoke’s veteran’s disease may be a case of reinfection, but that doesn’t mean COVID-19 does not confer immunity, Lipsitch warned. “That would be like saying, if an airplane crashes, then no airplane is safe,” he said.

“It is very likely that people are immune to COVID after infection, and that immunity is imperfect: it will not last forever and it will be protective but not perfectly protective in some people,” he said.

The soldier’s House resident tested positive “early” in the pandemic, Karanovich said, declining to be more specific. He survived the infection and had been among the 21 residents living in a unit for those who had clinically recovered from COVID-19. Karanovich said that all residents of that unit are now quarantined.

She had no information on whether the man had ever been negative. When she got sick Monday, she said, her symptoms were “comparable to COVID.”

Officials are evaluating all consenting residents and staff members before deciding whether to resume visits.

“We are pushing for accelerated test results,” said Karanovich, “in the hope that we can decide whether it is safe to resume or not.”

The Soldiers’ House suspended visits on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Previously, he had allowed two visitors at a time to meet with residents, masked and 6 feet away, outside, by appointment Tuesday through Saturday.

The home is under interim leadership as it struggles to recover from last spring’s outbreak. A state-commissioned report released last month found that former leaders in the home had made “completely baffling” mistakes, including the lack of planning or executing basic measures to stop the virus from spreading.

That included the decision to merge two locked dementia units in late March, creating what the report called “deplorable” conditions for 40 crowded veterans in a space designed to house 25. A recreational therapist who was instructed to help with the move told investigators she felt like she was “walking [the veterans] upon his death, “the report said.

But since June 18, state officials reported that all residents there had recovered, and in almost daily updates, the latest of which was sent on Friday, zero positive cases were reported on the premises or at Holyoke Medical Center. , where nearly two dozen veterans have been in a dedicated skilled nursing unit since last week.

There have been other consequences. Bennett Walsh, then the facility’s superintendent, has since been fired, but is fighting his firing.

The family of a veteran who died in the Korean War sued him, the former secretary of state veterans and three others, accusing in a $ 176 million lawsuit that thousands of residents died unnecessarily at the facility because officials showed a ” deliberate indifference “to his care. .

Felice J. Freyer can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer Matt Stout can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout