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Coronavirus FAQ: Is it a good idea to get COVID before I'm over 60 and at higher risk?

A rapid antigen test shows a positive test result for COVID-19.
Odd Andersen
AFP via Getty Images
A rapid antigen test shows a positive test result for COVID-19.

Each week, we answer frequently asked questions about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions." See an archive of our FAQs here.

I'm in my 50s. If I'm going to get COVID, it seems like it would be better to get it before I'm older and in a higher-risk category. So — should I try to get COVID before I turn 60?

We spoke to three specialists and they all agree.

Definitely not, says Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University.

"It's lunacy," says Dr. Sarah Fortune, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

"There are very few times in medicine where we say go ahead and get the disease, because for the most part getting the disease is not good," says Dr. Fred Pelzman, associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. "Once a vaccine became available for chicken pox, for example, no one was saying, go ahead and expose your child to chicken pox."

Now it is true that being infected confers a degree of natural immunity. There's growing evidence that a symptomatic infection likely offers protection against severe disease and death for a few years in the general population. But protection against a second infection wanes quickly, probably after about six months.

And there are huge cautionary notes that our experts sounded. Here are the reasons not to try and catch the disease as a pre-emptive measure.

"Someone saying they want to get the disease now [before] they turn 60 is based on population data that older people do worse with COVID," says Pelzman. "But we don't know that the person in their 50s isn't going to have a terrible outcome."

"Every time you get sick with COVID there is a small but not zero risk of bad things happening," says Fortune. For example, one study, published last week, analyzed who has been hospitalized during the delta and omicron surges. About half of the people hospitalized were over age 64, but nearly 30% of them were between ages 45 and 64.

No matter your age, you still have a risk of having symptoms linger for months or developing long COVID, Karan says. Right now, scientists don't know what that risk is for an infection with omicron.

What's more, he notes, there's "the chance that COVID-19 could exacerbate other underlying conditions given it causes a significant amount of inflammation in the body."

And if you are in contact with kids under age 5, for whom there is currently no vaccine approved in the U.S., you run the risk of spreading COVID to them – as well as to immuno-compromised people you're in contact with.

"I'm 53, I'm pretty risk tolerant," says Fortune. "I'm going to take more risks in terms of reengaging with people than others might be comfortable with, but I'm not going to a COVID party."

Another point to consider: Both treatments and vaccines will likely improve as the years pass, Karan says. "And we will have a better understanding by then of what the long-term costs of getting infected are on human health."

"For all we know, by the time the person now in their 50s is in their 60s, we could have a single pill for treatment," says Pelzman. "So risking a severe case now or passing it to others who are vulnerable won't have been worth it."

As he sums it up: "There's no reason to put yourself in harm's way for something you'd say, 'I wish I hadn't done that.' "

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a freelance health journalist in Minneapolis. She has written about COVID-19 for many publications, including The New York Times, Kaiser Health News, Medscape and The Washington Post. More at sheilaeldred.pressfolios.com. On Twitter: @milepostmedia.

Fran Kritz is a health policy reporter based in Washington, D.C., who has contributed to The Washington Post and Kaiser Health News. Find her on Twitter: @fkritz

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sheila Eldred
Fran Kritz