Patient dies of suspected COVID months after being declared virus-free

Nursing home resident, 74, fell seriously ill with coronavirus in August but recovered, tested negative three times, then once again showed symptoms that became fatal

Illustrative: Workers prepare a body before a funeral ceremony at a morgue for coronavirus victims, in Holon, on October 28, 2020. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Workers prepare a body before a funeral ceremony at a morgue for coronavirus victims, in Holon, on October 28, 2020. (Flash90)

A man who recently died of coronavirus may have been Israel’s first case of fatal reinfection with the disease, Kan news reported on Wednesday.

The nursing home resident, 74, became ill in August with COVID-19, the disease cause by the virus. He was treated at Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tivka, where he eventually recovered. Three subsequent virus tests all showed that he was no longer infected.

However, he recently became ill again with COVID-19 symptoms and was admitted to Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan. Doctors were unable to save him and he died earlier this week, Kan reported.

Health officials are looking into the case to determine whether the patient became infected with a new strain of the virus, or if it somehow remained dormant in his body, hidden from the tests, before reemerging, the report said.

Earlier this month Army Radio reported that doctors are investigating 81 cases of COVID-19 patients who appeared to have recovered from the coronavirus and later became reinfected.

A Health Ministry spokesperson confirmed the figure to The Times of Israel, though she did not provide more details. The cases are still being probed, and officials believe that the final confirmed number of reinfections may be smaller.

Israel is believed to be the first country in the world to confirm such a large-scale investigation into suspected reinfection.

In October an Israeli reinfection case was, for the first time, documented in formal medical research.

Since the start of the outbreak there have been 339,318 virus cases diagnosed in Israel and 2,883 people have died, according to Health Ministry figure published Wednesday.

Scientists currently believe that fewer than two dozen people worldwide have been confirmed reinfected, and the British medical journal Lancet put the figure as low as five in a recent report.

The Lancet article put the issue of reinfection on the global health agenda as it documented America’s first confirmed case of SARS-CoV-2 reinfection.

Last month Dutch authorities reported what is believed to be the first death as a result of reinfection. The deceased was an 89-year-old immunocompromised woman, who tested positive, recovered, and 59 days later fell ill and once again tested positive.

She did not have negative tests between illnesses, but researchers have been reported as saying the genetic makeup of the virus found in the tests differed — suggesting it was reinfection and not a single prolonged illness.

Tel Aviv University professor Mordechai Gerlic told The Times of Israel he suspects that mistakes account for some reports of reinfection, saying the diagnoses may well reflect testing errors, or patients who never fully recovered from their first infection.

Confirmed cases of reinfection should not cause alarm, he said. “In any biological system you have outliers, and the statistics here prove it’s not something to worry about.”

Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.

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