Coronavirus is frightening, but although there are ongoing reports of an increasing number of cases and the number of deaths, the reality is that most people who suffer from COVID-19 survive. Just as the number of cases has increased, so has the number of others: those who have recovered.
By mid-March, the number of patients in the US who had officially recovered from the virus was close to zero. That number now in tens of thousands and climb every day. But recovering from COVID-19 is more complicated than just feeling better. Recovery involves biology, epidemiology, and a little bureaucracy too.
How does your body fight COVID-19?
After a person is exposed to coronavirus, the body starts producing a protein called an antibody to fight infection. Like this antibodies begin to successfully contain the virus and keeping it from replicating in the body, symptoms usually begin to decrease and you start to feel better. Finally, if all goes well, your immune system will completely destroy all viruses in your system. An infected person who survived the virus without long-term health effects or disabilities has “recovered.”
On average, a person infected with SARS-CoV-2 will feel sick for about seven days from the onset of symptoms. Even after the symptoms have disappeared, there is still a small amount of virus in the patient’s system, and they must remain isolated for three additional days to make sure they really have recover and no longer contagious.
What about immunity?
In general, after you recover from a viral infection, your body will store cells called lymphocytes in your system. These cells “remember” the virus they had previously seen and can react quickly to fight it again. If you are exposed to a virus that you already have, your antibodies will likely stop the virus before it starts causing symptoms. You become invulnerable. This is the principle behind many vaccines.
Unfortunately, immunity is not perfect. For many viruses, such as mumps, immunity can be reduced over time, leaving you vulnerable to viruses in the future. This is why you need to get revaccinated – “booster shots” – sometimes: to encourage your immune system to make more antibodies and memory cells.
Because this coronavirus is so new, scientists still don’t know whether people recovering from COVID-19 are like that immune to future viral infections. Doctors find antibodies in patients who are sick and recovering, and it shows the development of immunity. But the question remains how long that immunity will last. Other corona viruses like SARS and MERS produce an immune response which will protect a person for at least a short time. I suspect the same is true for SARS-CoV-2, but this research has not been done to say definitively.
Why do so few people recover officially in the US?
This is a dangerous virus, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is being very careful when deciding what it means to recover from COVID-19. Medical and testing criteria must be met before someone officially declared recovered.
Medically, a person must be free of fever without fever-lowering drugs for three consecutive days. They must show improvement in other symptoms, including reduced cough and shortness of breath. And it must be at least seven full days since symptoms begin.
In addition to that requirement, the CDC guidelines say that one must test negatively for corona virus twice, with The test is taken at least 24 hours apart.
Only then, if both symptoms and test conditions are met, is someone who is officially considered to be recovering by the CDC.
This second testing requirement is probably why so few cases were officially restored in the US until the end of March. Initially, there was a a big shortage of testing in the U.S. So, while many people have definitely recovered over the past few weeks, this cannot be officially confirmed. When the country enters the top of the pandemic in the coming weeks, the focus is still there test those who are infected, not those who might have recovered.
More and more people are being tested now that state and private companies have started produce and distribute tests. As the number of available tests increases and the pandemic will eventually slow down in the country, more testing will be available for those who appear to be recovering. When a recovered person is tested, the appearance of a new infection will help researchers learn how long immunity can be expected to last.
After someone recovers, what can they do?
Knowing whether people are immune to COVID-19 after they recover will determine what individuals, communities and the wider community can do going forward. If scientists can show that a recovered patient is immune to the corona virus, then someone who has recovered can be theoretically correct help support the health care system by treating those who are infected.
After the community passes the peak of the epidemic, the number of new infections will decrease, while the number recovered people will increase. As this trend continues, the risk of transmission will decrease. Once the risk of transmission has decreased sufficiently, community-level isolation and social distance orders will begin to relax and businesses will reopen. Based on what other countries have been through, that will happen months until the risk of transmission is low in America.
But before all this can happen, the US and the world need to get past the peak of this pandemic. Social detention functions to slow the spread of infectious diseases and worked for COVID-19. Many people will do it need medical help to recover, and social distance will slow this virus down and give people the best chance to do it.
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