As COVID cases have declined, so have the number of coronavirus questions submitted to MLive by its readers.
But in the last two weeks, MLive’s public health team has received questions about repeat COVID infections, the rate of breakthrough cases in the vaccinated population, and the timeline for future vaccine eligibility.
Below are some of the latest questions, along with answers collected from local and federal health officials, studies and guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Remember, to get your questions answered, submit them by email to email@example.com.
Q: How many times can you catch COVID?
Repeat coronavirus infections are a reality, in part because the immunity from vaccines and previous infections wanes over time, and because the latest variants are better at evading neutralizing antibodies than prior strains.
Mutations between variants allow the virus to evade the body’s defenses, opening the door for re-infection. Thus, there is no set number of times you can get COVID.
Dr. Matthew Sims, an infectious disease specialist for Beaumont Health, said he has heard from patients who got sick with COVID late last year and now they are sick again, about six months later.
In shorter timeframes, he has also seen individuals who happen to test positive again after a few weeks, though in those cases he said it is likely the same infection that has not fully cleared.
“If you were infected with BA.1 (the original Omicron variant) back in January, you don’t seem to have a lot of protection against this strain now (BA.12.1),” Sims said. “It’s probably about 4 to 6 months that you’re protected; that’s why they’re doing roughly six-month boosters.”
Q: What percentage of people who have been fully vaccinated get COVID?
Michigan’s breakthrough case data is not as good as it was throughout much of the pandemic, because universal case investigation is no longer being performed.
The state’s latest count, which surveyed from Jan. 15, 2021 through April 8, 2022, found that less than 30% of reported cases were among fully vaccinated people. Fully vaccinated people also made up 18% of hospitalizations and 22% of COVID deaths during that time.
While the data alone is not perfect, health officials have said it offers support for the notion that people are better off vaccinated compared to their non-vaccinated counterparts, who are at higher risk for more severe illness if infected.
Anecdotally, there appear to be more breakthrough cases in recent history compared to the first months after vaccines became widely available. Doctors say that is because the vaccines in use were created based off the initial strains of the coronavirus from 2020.
Since then, we have pivoted from the original strain, through Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and now multiple strains of Omicron. Along the way, the virus has mutated to better protect itself against immunity.
“It’s pretty clear that the vaccines that we’re using right now, with the current circulating variants, do not prevent infection,” Sims said.
“People are getting infected despite being vaccinated, and previous infection is not necessarily preventing them from getting re-infected. But what is happening is vaccines are very clearly standing up and doing a good job at keeping people out of the hospital. That’s waned a little bit but vaccines are still showing excellent protection against hospitalization, severe illness and death, despite the fact that there is an increased risk for getting an infection with the new circulating sub-variants.”
Numerous vaccine developers, including Pfizer and Moderna, are working on omicron-specific boosters, which health officials say would be a key step in catching up with the virus’s mutations. An updated booster could be ready by the fall.
Q: When will children younger than 5 be able to get vaccinated?
Advisors for the FDA are scheduled to consider recommending vaccines for children 6 months to 4 years old on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 14 and 15. The Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will hold the public meetings virtually, and live stream their discussions.
Both Pfizer and Moderna have submitted clinical data indicating their shots are safe and effective at preventing severe COVID-19 when administered to younger kids. Moderna recommends two doses of its shot, while Pfizer suggests three doses for the best results.
Once the advisory committee of independent vaccine experts votes on their recommendation, the FDA will determine whether to expand each company’s emergency use authorization. Then it will be up to the CDC to give the final green light.
As for a potential timeline, the White House has said vaccinations for this age group could begin as early as Tuesday, June 21. If things move smoothly, local health systems anticipate being able to provide vaccines for children under 5 in their primary care offices in early July.
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