What To Know If You’ve Already Had COVID

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Justin Paget/Getty

A friend said something chilling to me the other day: COVID-19 is closing in. It feels like it’s everywhere.

I know what she means. Especially for those who live in hotspots, even taking as many precautions as they possibly can, sometimes it simply isn’t enough, and they still get sick. Some folks are essential workers and can’t avoid coming into contact with a not-always-careful public. Some people isolate completely aside from a bi-weekly trip to pick up groceries, and still somehow end up with COVID. Kids may unknowingly bring COVID-19 home from the school they must attend while their parents work during the day.

Those who have already had COVID may wonder: What does that mean for me? Do all the usual precautions the CDC recommends for folks who have managed to stay clear of COVID still apply to them, or are the rules different once you’ve had it? For those of you who have already had COVID and recovered, first of all, we’re glad you are well, and we hope you have no long-lasting symptoms. But also, we’ve got answers to your questions about how to move forward after recovering from COVID-19.

If I’ve already had COVID, do I still need to get the vaccine?

Well, if you’ve already had COVID, you do have some level of protection from reinfection. But scientists and health experts aren’t sure exactly how much or for precisely how long. Researchers in New York City found that antibodies lasted for about three months in folks that had recovered from a COVID-19 infection. What we do know is that there have been instances of folks being reinfected with COVID, though these are not widespread. Dr. Monsef Slaoui, chief scientific advisor for Operation Warp Speed, told CNN that because of the waning antibodies that scientists have noted among those who have had COVID, he recommends that even people who have already been infected should still get vaccinated.

Do I still need to wear a mask in public?

Scientists are not certain whether or not people who have already been infected and recovered and who are no longer symptomatic can carry and spread the virus to others. Health experts say that even if you have had COVID-19, yes, you do still need to wear a mask in public, socially distance, and follow the same guidelines as someone who hasn’t yet been infected. There is still too much that is unknown to make assumptions that you can no longer infect others just because you have already had the virus.

I’ve been recovered for weeks. Am I safe to be around people who haven’t had COVID?

As mentioned before, the answer is “it depends.” Once you’ve been symptom free for 10 days since the initial onset of symptoms first appeared and you have been fever free for at least 24 hours without the aid of fever-reducing medications, and your other COVID-19 symptoms have improved (with the exception of of loss of taste and smell, as these can persist for months), you may end your isolation​ at home. But you still need to follow the CDC’s general guidelines for mask-wearing, social distancing, and travel, as reinfection is still possible and it’s also possible you could transmit the virus to others.

Moreover, if you had a severe COVID-19 infection that weakened your immune system, for your own safety you need to stay away from others so you don’t become infected with some other virus. The CDC recommends you talk with your healthcare provider, who may enlist the advice of an infectious disease expert or the local health department, to determine whether and when you will be safe to be around others.

The CDC does clarify that if you’ve already had and recovered from COVID-19 and have come into close contact with someone who has recently been diagnosed, that you yourself do not have to isolate as long as your illness was within the previous three months and you’re completely recovered without any lingering COVID-19 symptoms.

Can I travel by plane now?

You have a certain level of immunity. For three months or maybe longer. You probably won’t get reinfected. You might be safe to travel. The CDC guidelines say don’t. According to John Brooks, the chief medical officer for the CDC’s coronavirus response, the recommendation to avoid nonessential applies to everyone.

Brooks told the Washington Post via email, “Although the risk of becoming infected again immediately after recovery (i.e., in the next 90 days) appears low, we do not know how much protection recovered people may have.”

Another concerning issue is not so much what might happen to you if you are to get reinfected — after all, you have antibodies now — it’s that you may infect someone else who will not have the same robust immune response that you likely would. So keep following the CDC’s guidelines.

Can I take care of someone who is currently sick with COVID?

Sometimes there is no choice but to care for someone who is sick with COVID, whether you’ve had a prior infection or not. If you’ve already been infected and recovered, you do have good protection against reinfection. But, as stated before, experts are not certain you can’t still transmit the virus to others. So you should follow the same CDC guidelines you would if you’d never been infected. The infected person and you should both wear masks, the infected person should remain isolated, and surfaces should be washed regularly.

One thing that would absolutely be unwise to do would be for someone who has not yet had COVID to deliberately choose infection over a vaccine, as some politicians, like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, have suggested. The immunity might be useful, but there is no way to be sure you’ll survive a COVID infection without long-lasting effects that could damage your quality of life. Nearly a third of people who recover from a COVID-19 infection, even people under 35, end up with chronic issues like exhaustion, racing heart, or autoimmune symptoms that mimic lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. The vaccine so far is showing to be a much safer bet. Don’t gamble your life, or your quality of life, when we’re so close now — wait for the vaccine.

Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.

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