If you’ve managed to remain seemingly sickness-free while nursing your family through, you may wonder if you can avoid the coronavirus altogether.
Amid yet another wave of COVID infections — this one fueled by the extremely contagious BA.5 Omicron subvariant — it might seem like COVID is coming for all of us, even those who have managed to avoid it for the past two and a half years. Adding fuel to the fire is a slew of recent headlines claiming that it’s next to impossible not to have had COVID at this point, with some experts believing the virus might never actually go away.
Keeping yourself and your loved ones safe is downright exhausting, especially as public protection measures have all but fallen by the wayside. You might even feel like one of the only people left on planet Earth who hasn’t gotten COVID by now, especially if those around you have been infected. Why do some people catch COVID while others remain free and clear (and cough-free)? How is it possible that some members of a household have symptomatic illness while others seemingly never test positive? Allow a pro to break down the facts.
Is it possible to have never had COVID?
Even though you might feel like a real-life medical marvel to have remained COVID-free so far, Dr. Robert W. Frenck Jr., MD, a pediatrician who directs the Vaccine Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, tells Scary Mommy why it doesn’t seem likely that you have some invisible COVID shield. The cold-hard truth, per Frenck: “More than 90 million cases of COVID have been reported in the United States. Over a million people have died, and there have been over 5 million hospital admissions. We are averaging over 300 more deaths daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and over 37,000 people are currently hospitalized with COVID.”
Of course, COVID is far from over. However, as the data stands, the numbers show that not everyone gets or has had it. “The number of cases equates to about one-fourth of the population — so, yes, it is possible to not have had COVID,” Frenck says.
What can you do to continue steering clear?
Frenck notes that the very same mitigation efforts that have helped reduce your chances of catching it remain the gold standard, even as infection rates soar yet again. “Safeguards include vaccination, masking, hand hygiene, and social distancing. Vaccination still has a 30% to 40% protection rate against infection with the Omicron variant,” he explains, adding, “And the vaccine is still doing quite well against serious disease — e.g., against hospitalization or death. The rate of hospitalization in unvaccinated people is still 5 to 10 times higher than the rate for those who are vaccinated.”
Now’s the time to continue masking in public and around those who are ill, especially with high-quality masks such as N95s, KN95s, N94s, and KF94s. “Masks can serve two purposes,” says Frenck. “If a person with COVID is wearing a mask and sneezes or coughs, the mask will block a lot of viral particles from getting out and possibly infecting other people. If a person who does not have COVID is wearing a mask, the mask will block a lot of viral particles from getting into that person. Regardless of the COVID-19 variant, masks work the same and can be effective if fitted properly over both the nose and mouth.”
Why do some people get COVID and others don’t?
With most viral illnesses, many of us brace ourselves and prepare for the entire household to go down, even if we try our best to separate and sanitize everything. Yet, in some cases, one or more members gets COVID while others don’t. So, what’s the deal? Unfortunately, as Frenck explains, COVID is still too new, so there are still so many questions unable to be answered just yet.
“It is unclear why after an exposure to COVID-19 — or any other infectious agent — some people get infected, and others don’t,” he says. Lately, much has been made about early research that could pinpoint why some people seem to evade illness from COVID while others don’t, including specific genetic components, prior exposure to other coronaviruses (including previous COVID-19 strains), and even certain allergies, such as food allergies. But Frenck is skeptical about the long-term viability of these protective agents, especially as COVID continues to mutate and become even more inescapable.
“Even if factors such as a food allergy were to offer some protection against COVID-19, I still would strongly encourage vaccination — because we know the vaccine is effective in significantly decreasing the risk of getting severe COVID,” he says.
What about asymptomatic infection and antibodies?
The high level of asymptomatic COVID infections — that is, people who are infected but never show signs of illness — has been among the most widely discussed aspects throughout the pandemic, with some research showing as many as 60% of cases to be asymptomatic, which could possibly be even higher with the Omicron variant. You might even be wondering if you have been one of those cases despite testing negative, something Frenck doesn’t count out but doesn’t recommend putting much stock into as rates continue to rise.
And about those antibody tests: “If you got an antibody test and you are positive, that would mean you either had a vaccine against COVID or had the natural infection,” he says, adding that those are two distinct types of antibodies. “The problem is that most commercial labs do a combined test that measures both types of antibodies, in which case you could only know you had antibodies — but not which ones.” We do not know the level of antibody needed to provide protection against future or additional infection, says Frenck, which is why remaining vigilant and doing all you can to mitigate the virus remains of utmost importance.
Here’s hoping the updated Omicron-specific booster is around the bend shortly to offer some peace of mind against this never-ending nightmare scenario we can’t seem to hide from.
Dr. Robert W. Frenck Jr., MD, a pediatrician who directs the Vaccine Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital