Experts are not yet sure if people who have recovered from COVID-19 are now immune

By Julie Mazziotta
April 17, 2020 05:14 PM
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As governors begin to weigh lifting stay at home orders their states, there are still many unknowns about the new coronavirus, COVID-19, that are making experts wary of reopening the country.

As of April 17, there have been at least 667,945 COVID-19 cases in the U.S., though the true number is believed to be far higher due to the lack of available testing. While experts hope that the thousands of people who have recovered from the virus are now immune, they do not know for sure, and that’s one of several worries that are holding them back from agreeing that Americans can start to return to their pre-March lives.

For now, the best option is for everyone — even those who have recovered from COVID-19 — to stay home, Dr. Robert Norton, a professor of public health at Auburn University and member of several coronavirus task forces, tells PEOPLE.

And for those who are currently dealing with a case of COVID-19 (the U.S. is still seeing an increase of around 20,000 cases a day), here’s how to handle going into isolation and coming out of it — while continuing to stay inside.

Going into Isolation

First, those with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 need to immediately go into isolation. That means staying in a room solo, if possible, as they manage their symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Other household members should not go into the room unless the infected person needs medical help, and should instead leave food, medications and other supplies for them outside their door.

“If you have a sick person in your household, you need to segregate as much as possible within that household,” says Norton.

To manage COVID-19, an infected person should monitor their symptoms, wash their hands often, drink water and take anti-inflammatory medications if they have a fever. Other family members should wear a mask and gloves if they have them when handling anything they’ve used, such as glasses and linens, and should thoroughly disinfect those items, Norton says.

“If you don’t have a mask or gloves, then just scrupulously adhere to hand-washing,” he says.

For those who are able to recover at home, it’s important for them to monitor and track their symptoms each day to note any changes.

Leaving Isolation

To determine when it is safe to rejoin the rest of a household after contracting COVID-19, a person would ideally be tested again to make sure it comes back negative. The CDC says that once a person has had two negative test results in 24 hours, symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath have improved and they no longer have a fever without taking anti-inflammatory medications, they can leave their room.

For those who cannot get tested due to the nationwide shortages of testing kits and personal protective equipment, they need to look for a few additional signs that they have recovered before they can be with family again. Those people should ensure that they have not had a fever for at least 72 hours, without anti-inflammatories. They should also have improved symptoms — a lessened cough, an easier time breathing. And it should also be at least seven days since their symptoms first appeared.

Stay at Home, Regardless

Even if you’ve had COVID-19 and recovered, that does not mean you should go back to your life prior to the outbreak.

“The best idea is to stay at home,” Norton says, and stick to the social distancing guidelines that are in place across the country. That protects you and other people from getting sick, because while it appears that recovered patients develop some form of immunity against COVID-19, scientists do not yet know for sure.

“At this point we have to say it’s possible [to become immune], but we don’t know if people are going to continue to be susceptible,” Norton says.

To better understand that question, antibody testing is needed, and that likely won’t happen until the current outbreak has died down.

“Hopefully, we’ll have an answer,” he says.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.