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Covid-19 in the community

Catching Covid again: thoughts about another Covid infection

In this section we explore what people we interviewed thought about catching Covid again. The people we spoke in early 2021 to had already had Covid, either recently or in the previous year. They hoped that having already had Covid they would be protected from further infection, or at least from serious illness. In this section we explore:

  • Reasons for cautious optimism
  • Fears and feelings of vulnerability to reinfection
  • Concerns about what isn’t known (yet) about the virus
  • Continuing concerns

 

 

When Jessica, a hospital doctor, was interviewed early in 2021 she had already been infected twice.

When Jessica, a hospital doctor, was interviewed early in 2021 she had already been infected twice.

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Even when I got my cough the second time around, I've had a cough loads of times before, and it's a really common thing to have. And so, when I got it the second time around, I was surrounded by Covid patients. I'd been seeing twenty five to fifty different Covid patients per day, looking after people who were having aerosolising procedures, so they were all on CPAP, which is the type of ventilation. And so, I knew my risk was high. I was high risk for getting Covid at that point.


 
People we spoke to in the second half of 2021 had usually had at least one dose of the vaccine when we talked. When we asked about their thoughts on getting Covid again they told us they would be variously ‘angry’ ‘annoyed’, ‘pissed off’, ‘shocked’ or ‘resigned’ if that happened.

 
Reasons for cautious optimism

Not many people we spoke to believed that they were completely protected even after they had had an infection, two vaccines and a booster. Matt felt ‘reasonably protected, not permanently immune’.
 

 

Rabbi Wollenberg had a ‘sixth sense’ that he would be OK if exposed to infection again but is still very cautious.

Rabbi Wollenberg had a ‘sixth sense’ that he would be OK if exposed to infection again but is still very cautious.

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How would you feel if God forbid, you got Covid again?
 
I honestly, I think I would be quite shocked. I know people are getting it again, but for some reason I think I’ve just kind of, I don’t think I’m invincible but I’ve just kind of got this sort of sixth sense that I’m immune to it, so I will be quite shocked. And I am also double vaccinated and, though I mean I just did a funeral of somebody who was 9, 96. Everyone said, “Well he was 96” but he was in perfectly good health until he got Covid, and he was triple vaccinated. So, the danger hasn’t gone away.
 
Am I afraid of catching Covid again? I’m not so much, I’m convinced I’m probably immune. And I’m not taking risks, but I’m convinced I’m probably immune. But at the same time, it’s almost irrelevant because I’m not just thinking about myself, I’m thinking about my family and my public role and for that reason I think I would still be very cautious. So, I think we’re still being quite cautious. But I think it, having government guidelines helped us all know that this is the baseline of what we have to do. Having more freedom in some ways is more challenging, because we have to find a balance.

 

Matthew thought that because the virus ‘didn’t take me’ when he was at his worst, a future infection would likely be much milder.

Matthew thought that because the virus ‘didn’t take me’ when he was at his worst, a future infection would likely be much milder.

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I mean I’ve been double jabbed. I’ve already had the illness and I had the illness when I was at my very, very lowest. And I, you know, if it couldn’t take me then, I just don’t think it’s going to take me now. I think if I was to get it again, it would just be very mild. I’d self-isolate and that would be that. But I very much firmly strongly believe that the reality is that this disease is with us forever now and as difficult and as tragic as it is, you know, life has to move on. And, you know, what seventy thousand people a year die from flu and that’s a terrible statistic but I personally, I just want to get back to living life normally. But I can understand people being worried about it.


 
As more information about the effectiveness of vaccinations came out, most people we talked to recognised that even if they did become infected again they could expect to have a milder illness. Despite this, nearly everyone we talked to in 2021 said that they remained cautious about their own and other people’s safety and continued to follow precautions. Esther explained, not only did she not want to get Covid again, she also did not want to have to go back into isolation.
 
 

Beth, who works in a care home, feels that she has done what she can by being vaccinated and hopes a reinfection wouldn’t be too bad.

Beth, who works in a care home, feels that she has done what she can by being vaccinated and hopes a reinfection wouldn’t be too bad.

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I just, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s because maybe, I don’t really know. I mean, you can never say anything’s 100% [um], you can never say you know I’m 100% never going to get it again because it’s that, you don’t know that nobody knows that yet. And I think that’s probably, that’s just me sort of almost telling myself you know, I can still get it again, but if I do get it again, you know, it’s going to be a bit better because I’ve had the vaccines and I’ve got all this stuff against it now. So, I think I tell myself that to prepare myself, and if it doesn’t happen then brilliant, but if it does and I have that mindset of okay but you’ve got your vaccines and you’ve got your antibodies. And, so I think I’d prefer to think that I’m going to, you know, I might not ever get it again, fingers crossed. But at least I have the mindset of the fact that it could happen, happen again and if it doesn’t bonus.

 

 

Gwilym is part of a research study where his antibodies are regularly assessed. He is relieved that these are still ‘very high’.

Gwilym is part of a research study where his antibodies are regularly assessed. He is relieved that these are still ‘very high’.

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Well, you know, having had it, I knew that I would have antibodies to fight the virus and I felt a little bit safer actually, having had it, you know. The fact that I should be able to fight it more easily if I did come across it again. Obviously, that was before you knew about the different variants so, you know, you’d obviously expect to be safe against that particular virus, having had it, but then when the new variants came out you think, well, you know, hopefully there’ll still be cover against that. But I did take part in the study with Imperial College around May, June, you know, looking for antibodies and they said I had very high level of the IgG and IgM, you know, the short acting and the long-acting antibodies, so that was reassuring as well.

 


 
Some people who were initially very optimistic about being protected by antibodies and vaccines started to become a bit more concerned as they heard that some ‘double jabbed’ people had been infected again, and that some of these were seriously ill. Dorte said that she feels safer and more confident but that it was scary to think that some people in her situation might still be hospitalised.


Fears and feelings of vulnerability to reinfection

Of the people we spoke to, the people who were most fearful about reinfection were those who had been seriously ill with Covid. For some this had included being hospitalised (See Experiences of Covid-19 and Intensive Care).
 
Nargis, who we talked to three months after she caught Covid in early 2021, said that she was sure that she ‘wouldn’t survive’ if she got Covid again.

 

Emma couldn’t deal with the idea of getting Covid again because she had been so ill the first time.

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Emma couldn’t deal with the idea of getting Covid again because she had been so ill the first time.

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I don’t think I could deal with it again. You can’t imagine how debilitating it is, you know, you just feel so tired just lifting your head off the pillow is a major adventure, oh no, I hope not but they said that, there was a thing on the, somebody sent it round on Whatsapp, Bill Gates was saying that there’s definitely going to be a third wave or fourth wave or something and it’ll be much worse. So you know, he was saying that he invested, the biggest investment he’d ever made was in vaccine. He invested twenty million I think and he got two hundred million I think return on his investments so I guess we will be seeing a lot more variants and more vaccines. I hope I’m dead then though by that time. I just don’t want to live through it.

 

Sunita felt anxious about the prospect of getting Covid again.

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Sunita felt anxious about the prospect of getting Covid again.

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That I mean they’ve got this vaccine but, as I said, I think I’m still paranoid that I would get it again, I know that sounds, I think because I’ve been through it before, if that makes sense, I’m kind of like, oh do I touch this surface. I should be wearing a mask. I need to keep two centimetres away from the person, I shouldn’t be touching my face, kind of thing, if that makes sense. Oh, you know, we shouldn’t let our dog go near that dog because that dog might have Covid and pass it on.


 
When Cindy became aware that she had shared a car with someone who tested positive for Covid she was very panicked. Fortunately, she was not re-infected on this occasion. Because people with Covid do not always have symptoms, some of the people we talked to found it a scary thought that they could have it a second time and pass it on to others without knowing. This made them want to be more cautious.

 
Concerns about what isn’t known (yet) about reinfection

Early in 2021 there was uncertainty about whether it was even possible to get Covid twice. Mandy wondered ‘can you catch it again?’ but hoped that since ‘we’ve all gone through it’ that she wouldn’t get it again. She was aware that it was unclear whether people who remained well themselves might still pass it on to others and said, ‘that’s what I worry about’.
 
People we talked to sometimes referred to the research findings and scientists who were commonly in the media. They also included the views of friends and family and others, often quoted as ‘they say …don’t they?’ before expressing a hope or a concern.
 

 

Sue’s niece thinks that the virus will get weaker, like a cold virus, over time. Sue’s own experience of Covid was nothing like the ‘common cold’.

Sue’s niece thinks that the virus will get weaker, like a cold virus, over time. Sue’s own experience of Covid was nothing like the ‘common cold’.

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Well, I know there’s a risk of getting it again and that obviously the jab, they still don’t know whether, if you get it again whether that means you can pass it on or not. At the moment they’re saying they don’t know and also that, you know, we’re likely, it’ll likely be a bit like the flu jab, these new variants coming out that we might have to have the jab every year or every six months and so on and my niece actually works for AstraZeneca. She’s just started a new job with them. She works in not in vaccine, she works in developing cancer treatments but in the lab and everything and she’s a biochemist. So, what she’s said is that hopefully the, and I think Chris Whitty has said this as well, that the virus will gradually get weaker, and it’ll just become like a common cold virus. But I was, but ironically, I would say that for me, when I’ve had a cold in the past, you know, it can be just, it doesn’t necessarily make me tired but that swimming head thing, you know, it has the effect on my ability to do things as much as probably the virus. The coronavirus had on, or the Covid virus had on me this time although the sort of fatigue thing, I don’t normally get that with a cold, and it probably doesn’t last as long.


 
Nearly everyone was aware of the continuing uncertainty about how the virus might mutate and what new variants might mean for vaccine resistance. A common comment was that ‘we don’t know enough yet’, for example about how protective antibodies would be and for how long.
 
 

Sam X was relieved that her body had coped with the virus and concerned about getting it again, especially with a new variant.

Sam X was relieved that her body had coped with the virus and concerned about getting it again, especially with a new variant.

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Well, I don’t know much about immune responses and things but I know that, you know, my body has had a chance to fight off the virus. And so if I become present the virus is around me again, it knows what it’s doing. It’s not specifically this variant I imagine. So yeah. I feel less scared about getting it again. At the same time, I don’t want those symptoms ever again.

 

Continuing concerns

The continued uncertainty about what would happen next, alongside new evidence from research, led a few people to conclude that they should make the most of any weeks when they were well and transmission rates appeared to be low. Susanne said, ‘a silver lining of all this is that I feel as if we’ve got six to nine months of everybody having higher antibodies in their systems and a window to do things before the next variant may come along’.
 
Several people we spoke to expressed how keen they were to ‘get back to normal life’ and said they were ‘resigned’ to the possibility of getting Covid again. Recognising that nothing was ever certain in life, some believed that was in the hands of God, or the fates.
 

 

Paul Z is optimistic, but still takes precautions.

Paul Z is optimistic, but still takes precautions.

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Well, after I’d had, after I’d had the two jabs I felt more protected than most people. I thought well that’s probably got antibodies from having it. I had that and I must be quite well protected at the moment. I’m quite aware I can get it again, you know. And if the efficacy of the, the vaccinations wears off, you know, yeah, it’s possible that one might get it again. I’m certainly sort of, at the moment, I’m the sort of person who would go shopping with a mask, you know, in the shops going into a bar, you know, wear it until I’m sitting down, that sort of thing. So, it’s still taking precautions and it’s not everybody is now, of course. It’s a bit of a mixed picture [laughs]. But yes, I’m aware of it. But I, I suppose I think oh if it was, if it was mild first time round then I don’t have to worry too much perhaps, you know, if I get it again, maybe it’ll be similar again, you know. Perhaps it’s just head in the sand or just optimistic, I don’t know [laughs].

 

Laszlo, who works in a hospital, balanced fear with caution.

Laszlo, who works in a hospital, balanced fear with caution.

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So I’ve seen many of my former colleagues catching it, even after two doses of vaccine. I’ve now had the booster as well so it’s triple. From a precaution point of view, I’m very conscious that I’m still probably at a higher level of risk so I’m consciously trying to avoid going to work in areas in the hospital where they treat Covid patients. So this is one of the reasons why I haven’t returned to ED, although this was a consensus between me and the management saying that probably it’s safer for you to, so, initially, I was I was redeployed to another area and I have found this job advert and I said, “Okay, I love this kind of job so I would I would love to jump in.” So, first of all, I’m trying to consciously avoid going into zones and areas where I can be exposed or possibly highly exposed to this infection. On the other hand, I told myself that I can’t live my life in fear so I’m just going to do everything in my power to protect myself and my family but, other than that, I’m just going to live my life to the full. I’m just going to go to work not constantly thinking about, what if I’m going to get it? What if I’m going to get it? No, I’m just going to carry on with my work. I’m just going to carry on with my life and we just have to learn to live with this new reality. And for me, this new reality was a bit more harsh compared to other people but I still have to learn with it and I can tell you I’m not afraid of going to work. I’m not afraid of returning to the same environment and to deal with it, although I’m still super cautious.

 

June is concerned about asymptomatic Covid and won’t ‘throw off her mask and skip down the road’ just because she is fully vaccinated.

June is concerned about asymptomatic Covid and won’t ‘throw off her mask and skip down the road’ just because she is fully vaccinated.

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And I spoke to this gentleman on Sunday morning who and this was scary, he was asymptomatic twice, but caught it twice. And the only reason why he knew he had it the second well the first also ‘cos his son had the symptoms. And so they all said, all the family got tested and that’s how he knew he had it.

I, I felt it was really scary. Not only to be asymptomatic once, but asymptomatic twice and catch it twice. And the second time was he did a test through work and that’s how he knew he had it. And I find that a bit scary ‘cos you, you obviously can be spreading it to other people so it’s not as though you’re being reckless. You just, you don’t know you’ve got it and you’ve got no symptoms. So, yeah, it would have been handy, but then I realised that I could have got it again and it could’ve been, I could’ve got it in different circumstances. But your brain logically kind of you know thinks well, could I get it? And you, you try and you try and have guess work, you know, but I got no idea. I got no idea.

No, because you've heard of people, you've heard of, I can’t, think of an interesting story but I’m sure I’ve heard of, I feel as though I’ve heard of people having the vaccine and still getting it mild, but getting it. So, I’m not one of those people that feel, you now, throwing a mask skip up and jump down the road because I’m now fully done you know.


 
In contrast to those who have a mild experience of illness if they get infected again, Sam was more ill the second time he caught Covid.
 
 

After his first dose of the vaccine Sam Z caught Covid again and felt much worse the second time.

After his first dose of the vaccine Sam Z caught Covid again and felt much worse the second time.

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And the, the second time was definitely worse than the first time, the symptoms. The first time I just felt it was like a mild, moderate, moderate fever with only some aches and sweats. The second time I felt much rougher. I still didn't have any breathing problem at the time. No breathing problem. No coughs. Just, yeah, I just felt more feverish and more achy and just more. Even during the day I felt rough. Whereas when I first had it, in the daytime I didn't actually feel too bad, just the lack of sleep, but worse at night. I was still quite achy during the day. So that, that and in the same time as the first time I had it, that started getting better probably around about after five or six days and I was, I was isolating once I knew what it was. And then, yeah, I, I finished my kind of isolation period. By that point, I was starting to feel better and exactly the same trajectory as the first time.

 

Cat hopes that if she gets Covid again it won’t be too bad but thinks that because there is such wide variation in experience that it is hard to know.

Cat hopes that if she gets Covid again it won’t be too bad but thinks that because there is such wide variation in experience that it is hard to know.

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I think I was scared of getting it again, that I would then that time develop worse side effects. But then I think I also had that niggling feeling of like, if I got it again, it probably wouldn’t be that bad because the first time wasn’t that bad. And that feels quite unfair, that there can be such a vast like diversity of experiences and the fact that I’ve had quite a positive one. Not positive but like, test positive yes. That I’ve had quite a not-that-bad experience of it might prompt me to act in a certain way. And that, and also the idea that other people might not be getting it that bad, and then that might skew their idea of like how harmful or risky or dangerous it is. Does that make sense?

Yeah

So, I think I was kind of nervous about how not that bad it was [laughs].

Yeah. And if it had been like a kind of, you know, monolith experience for everyone, whether that was bad or not that bad, it might be more easy to kind of, it sounds cheesy but like unite, or even have like a common enemy and we all understood what the harms were and what the risks were what the problems were. But because it was so like diverse, it just seemed like impossible.

 

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