RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Nearly 100,000 North Carolinians may have had COVID-19 at least twice, new data from the Department of Health and Human Services show.
And COVID reinfections account for a growing share of the total each month, up to one in nine reported cases so far in June, according to a CBS17.com analysis of the detailed daily counts that NCDHHS began publishing this week.
Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, summed it up in four words.
“We’re all getting reinfected,” he said.
A case counts as a reinfection if a person tests positive at least 90 days after an initial positive test.
NCDHHS spokeswoman Summer Tonizzo said the detailed reinfection data was published this week “in an effort to make this information more easily accessible and to look at trends in reinfections over time.”
Although rare through the first 1 1/2 years of the pandemic, reinfections account for nearly 11 percent of all cases reported in June.
That rate was around eight percent from January through April before ticking up to nine percent in May.
NCDHHS counts 99,432 total reinfections — with nearly 85,000 of them coming since Jan. 1. They spiked at the same time new cases did, in mid-January during the worst of the omicron surge.
And those are just the ones health departments know about.
"I suspect a lot of the people who are not reinfections are reinfections, too,” Wohl said.
Just as the counts of new cases are likely vast undercounts, there similarly are certainly more reinfections that either are so mild that they go undetected or are found with an at-home test that isn’t reported to public health departments.
“Just over time, we know that almost everyone getting diagnosed will be a reinfection,” Wohl said. “That’s likely to happen just at the rate that we're going, especially recently. So I think this is a very imperfect number. It just tells us that there are a lot of people getting reinfected.”
The rise in reinfections coincides with the emergence of the omicron variant and its subvariants — some of which may elude the level of immunity you already have.
The BA.5 subvariant made up 11 percent of lab-sequenced samples last week in the state — that rate was just three percent two weeks earlier — while another subvariant showed a similar increase. BA.4 accounted for 4 percent of samples last week after making up one percent of samples two weeks prior.
“What we want is that the variants that we see now protect us from subsequent variants that may come along,” Wohl said. “And unfortunately for us, with omicron, with BA.1 and BA.2, people can still get infected with the newest subvariants.”
The good news, Wohl says, is that people who are catching — and re-catching — COVID don’t seem to be getting severely ill. He pointed to the relatively low number of patients in intensive care with the virus.
NCDHHS counted 90 of them across the state as of June 11, and 12 percent of hospitalized patients are in ICUs — a rate that’s near a pandemic low.
“The durability of (protection with vaccination), just like the durability of the protection you get with infection with natural infection is somewhat questionable,” Wohl said. "And we do know that it wanes over time, but the protection against severe disease is baked into our cells. That’s different than antibodies, and that seems to be really lingering, and that's very important.”
CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.