About three weeks before COVID-19 overtook the NYC metropolitan area, where I live, my seven-year-old came home sick. First he had a drippy nose. Then he had a fever that wavered between 101 and 102. Nothing too terrible or out of the ordinary, but within a few days, he completely lost his appetite. “Nothing tastes good!” he complained to me.
About two nights into the virus, he coughed directly into my face. Within a few days, I was sick too. It started with a cold, and by night two, I developed a fever of 102. I hadn’t felt that horrible in a long time. I remember standing by the fridge, thinking I might be hungry, but then feeling like I was going to barf. It was awful.
Within a few days, my fever had subsided, but my appetite was still out of whack. And I started to understand what my son meant when he said that nothing tasted good, because I started to literally not be able to taste a damn thing. I would try to eat something, and it would taste like absolutely freaking nothing.
It was super weird and super frustrating, because I wasn’t even that congested. I had just completely lost my sense of taste and smell. I remember telling my husband that nothing like that had ever happened to me before.
Within a few weeks, COVID-19 had taken over the world, and especially the area that I call home. I was living in the epicenter and it was scary as hell. Every day our streets were filled with sirens. Many people I knew tested positive for the virus. Friends of mine lost loved ones. It was a nightmare.
When the news broke a few weeks into the pandemic that losing one’s sense of taste and smell was a hallmark attribute of the virus, I became super curious about whether I’d had the virus in those weeks leading up to the official pandemic. Clearly, if I’d had the virus, I got a very mild case comparatively. But I was curious AF if I’d had it, and if so, if I might have some protection from getting it again—not to mention the possibility that I might be able to donate plasma to folks who are still recovering from the virus.
Enter antibody tests. For a few weeks—and even now—antibody tests were all the rage. At one point, folks were saying that if you tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, it might be the golden ticket for you to resume your normal (or somewhat normal life). Then it came out that having antibodies might not be all it was cracked up to be—or that having them might mean literally nothing at all because the tests themselves were flawed.
For these reasons—and the fact that I’ve been super nervous about entering a medical facility to get a test—I haven’t gotten an antibody test yet. Still, I’m curious as hell about whether I had the virus all those months ago—just because, who wouldn’t be, you know?
So I took a few of my most pressing antibody tests questions to Dr. Niket Sonpal, a New York-based Internist and Gastroenterologist, as well as an Adjunct Professor at Touro College. Here’s what he said.
What are the risks of going to an urgent care to get a test and possibly being exposed to the virus?
“As long as we are without a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, we will risk exposure when we leave our safe spaces,” Dr. Sonpal explained.
At the same time, he said that hospitals and urgent care centers have taken precautions such as social distancing in waiting rooms and isolating COVID-19 patients from the rest of the population—and the general public should not fear leaving their homes to get medical treatment or medical tests.
“As long as you are taking precautions like wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart from others, and avoiding contact between your face and hands, you stand a good chance of being okay,” Dr. Sonpal assured.
What does it mean if I test positive for COVID antibodies?
“A positive test for COVID antibodies means the patient has battled the disease, meaning the body has information about the virus in its system,” Dr. Sonpal explained. “This doesn’t necessarily mean the person is positive for the virus currently, but it also doesn’t necessarily mean the patient isn’t positive and spreading the virus.”
As for immunity to COVID-19 if you get a positive antibody test? That’s not a guarantee. “While researchers are looking into the defenses that people develop once they have antibodies in their system, we don’t know if there is immunity to the virus or not for those who have the antibodies,” Dr. Sonpal told me.
“With this in mind,” Dr. Sonpal added, “people should take the necessary precautions to stay safe and keep from infecting others. If you don’t know when you got sick, and you test positive, avoid visiting people who are hyper-vulnerable, such as the elderly, anyone with preexisting conditions like people with diabetes or high blood pressure as well.”
Can I still get COVID-19 if I have the antibodies?
This is sort of the big question, isn’t it? Here’s Dr. Sonpal’s answer:
“It is believed that people who have the antibodies stand better chances at a less intense sickness should they contract the virus again; however, more concrete data is needed to establish that.”
“Scientists are still looking into immunity periods and even plasma treatments for patients with an active infection using liquid extracted from blood donated by recovered patients,” he added.
If I have/had COVID, how long do I need to wait before taking the test?
It will take about 1-3 after you have symptoms to develop antibodies, says Dr. Sonpal, who emphasized that antibody tests are not the same as diagnostic tests (tests to tell you whether you are currently positive for the virus).
What does this mean in practical terms? “If you were just diagnosed with an active COVID-19 infection, you should wait at least eight or nine days before taking the antibodies test,” Dr. Sonpal offered. “If you were sick between January and May but didn’t get diagnosed with the FLU or another sickness, you could ask for the antibodies test to check if you battled COVID-19 in the past.”
If I test positive for COVID antibodies, can I “do anything I want” without fear of becoming seriously ill?
This was a definitive NO from Dr. Sonpal.
“Coronavirus is just as much about your health as it is about those who you love and those in your social and communal surroundings,” he explained. “So testing positive for antibodies is in a way a good thing, because your body has at least some information of the virus, making it less likely to have severe or life-threatening symptoms if you reencounter COVID-19, but preventative measures and social distancing still play a substantial role in keeping you and others safe.”
Why is this? “Because unless you take a test to tell you if you are actively infected, you don’t know if you could still be a spreader,” he clarified. “Additionally, scientists have yet to pinpoint the effectiveness of the immunity period after infection, so you can still get sick if you encounter a sick person. Furthermore, if you work, care, or socialize with someone who is elderly or compromised, you want to keep their health in mind before you abandon all safety measures.”
Bottom line: A positive antibody test should not change your behavior when it comes to social distancing and safety precautions.
Are certain COVID-19 antibody tests more accurate than others?
This is a question I have for sure. If I get a test that’s inaccurate, what’s the point of getting tested at all?
Here’s what Dr. Sonpal had to say about test accuracy:
“The CDC published a report on the various methods of testing for antibodies and emphasized the importance of test accuracy when trying to control a pandemic,” he explained. “The FDA is requiring that commercially marketed tests receive Emergency Use Authorization. Tests that are not marketed to the public commercially are not required to get the FDA authorization, but the developers can request the authorization voluntarily.”
In other words, make sure whatever test you get is FDA approved. “Tests that have Emergency Use Authorization are preferred for use pertaining to public health efforts and clinical testing because their test performance is reviewed by the FDA, who monitors the data,” Dr. Sonpal says.
I’m still not sure if I should go out and get an antibody test, especially given the fact that the results may not mean as much as I wish they would (i.e., that I had the virus and won’t ever get it again). And whether it’s rational or not, I’m still nervous about venturing out to an urgent care or other testing site unless absolutely necessary. And right now, getting an antibody test does not feel like a necessity.
Still, if my curiosity lingers—which I think it will!—and there is a super safe way to get a test (I’m hoping an at-home test comes out soon), I will definitely get one.
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