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Long Island hospital officials say they're not seeing repeat COVID-19 patients

Dr. Anthony Boutin, chief medical officer and interim

Dr. Anthony Boutin, chief medical officer and interim president of Nassau University Medical Center, said the hospital has not seen patients return with new COVID-19 infections. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Island hospital officials say they are not seeing people coming in with new, repeat cases of COVID-19, lending weight to the theory that once a person gets over the virus they have some level of immunity, officials said.

Hospital officials are taking this as a positive note as they continue to fight the virus that has infected about 80,000 Long Islanders and killed about 4,000. They say they it is encouraging as Long Island reopens parts of its economy.

“We’re not seeing them coming back for a new COVID infection,” said Dr. Anthony Boutin, chief medical officer and interim president of Nassau University Medical Center. “If it were otherwise, everybody would be talking about it.”

While these observations may add some evidence that the virus bestows some level of immunity, they by no means resolve the important questions regarding the level of immunity and how long it might last, officials said.

“I think there is immunity,” said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at Northwell Health. “But for how long? I doubt it’s lifelong.”

A major question is whether antibodies produced by the body after an infection with COVID-19 provide some level of immunity, and if so, for how long.

Consequently, officials are cautioning people they should not assume that because they had the virus, they have immunity. It remains to be seen whether the immunity is lifelong, as occurs with measles, or whether it is more temporary like the flu, which people take a shot for once a year.

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Farber said Northwell is not treating employees who’ve recovered from the virus any differently than those who haven’t. “We don’t assign them a higher risk job,” he said.

The observations by Long Island hospitals appears to be echoed elsewhere. While there are reports of COVID-19 patients returning to hospitals, the readmissions largely have been because of the original virus flaring anew or the lingering damage from the infection, not a new case, Farber said.

“A lot of them coming in are elderly, or they have lung disease or heart trouble,” Farber said. “It has always been due to something else, not recurring COVID.”

COVID-19 remains a mystery in many ways. Doctors have found that patients can test positive for weeks, if not longer, after they feel better. Sometimes a person will test negative, but then come back and test positive, as well, they say.

“A certain subset of patients get worse in the seven- to 10-day range,” said Dr. Susan Donelan, medical director of health care epidemiology at Stony Brook Medicine. “It seems to be an extension of the original infection.”

Several reports have emerged from China and elsewhere of people seeming to be reinfected with the virus, but these have been few.

“A lot of the tests that came back in China that you read about, where it looks like people were reinfected, those look extremely likely to be the result of testing errors,” Nita Bharti, a biologist at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State, told The Hill.

“If you’re testing a lot of people like they did in China, you’re likely to get a lot of false positives and a lot of false negatives,” she added.

South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recently studied 285 people who tested positive for the illness after recovering. Researchers found these patients had not spread any lingering infection. Moreover, virus samples taken from them could not be grown in a lab, meaning the patients were not shedding an infectious virus.

While hospital officials say they need more studies and testing regarding immunity, the fact that they are not seeing repeat patients lends itself to optimism. After all, if a person could readily be reinfected with the virus, that could mean that a vaccine might well be useless, officials said.

“It’s a realistic, optimistic note,” Farber said.

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