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After recovery from COVID, caution still urged

WHEELING — After a person has weathered the sickness associated with COVID-19 and been released from isolation during their quarantine, they’re still asked to take the same precautions as the general population, although they’ve earned a brief respite from further infection.

A person who recovers from infection from COVID-19 does not continue spreading the virus, but is at risk for re-infection at an uncertain time down the road, according to Howard Gamble, health administrator for the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department.

As a precaution, these individuals are asked to continue masking up and taking the same precautions as everyone else.

Gamble said a recovered person’s immune system contains antibodies that prevent reinfection for a brief window, generally around three months. However, this protection doesn’t last forever, and the exact time varies from person to person.

“It’s not 100% that everyone has the same level of protection,” Gamble said. “We think it lasts for about three months. But every time we release someone from their (quarantine), we tell them, you’re done, but you don’t walk out bulletproof. They still need to stay away from large groups, wash your hands, socially distance, because people can pick the virus back up again, this has been documented that you can get it again.

“There are a lot of documents and studies, about how long are we protected once we’re positive? We’re still at the three-month mark, but there are studies of people who go all the way to five, and studies of people who got reinfected. This is a new virus, very novel, so we’re learning as we go.”

Gamble said people released from isolation are urged to take the same precautions they took the first time, if not more strict, since they had already caught the disease.

He specified that people who had recovered are no longer spreading the disease, but may be at risk of contracting other, seasonal diseases, such as the flu.

“Susie, who was positive and was able to go back to work, is no longer shedding the virus, but she still has to protect her health, protect her family. You don’t want to come back in a few days with the sniffles, body aches and so on, and wonder, is this still COVID? It could also be influenza, or an upper respiratory problem going around the valley.”

The grace period after recovery, Gamble said, was beneficial in some aspects, as it meant a person re-exposed shortly after recovery is, generally speaking, safe and able to continue working.

“We’ve had occasions where (someone who tested) positive was released to go back to work, and then within that workplace, another positive occurred. If it’s within the three month mark, that original employee does not have to go back to quarantine. It has helped, early on, when schools were still in session, where a teacher had been exposed, and could go back to work. … There are some benefits, but it’s just three months. It’s short.”

A further complication of the recovery period is that the presence of antibodies in the system can ping false positives on subsequent tests on healthy individuals.

“We have to remind them, you’ll probably test positive for the next three months. (The test is) picking it up, saying you have the virus, but they’re not infectious. That’s really the key — they’re not infectious. … More than likely, it may show up as a positive for at least three months. It’s in his system, it’s a variable that is, at this time, unknown, but hopefully this time next year we’ll have a better understanding.”

Gamble pointed out that for many people now several months recovered from COVID they contracted during the summer, it could be difficult to differentiate between new symptoms associated with both seasonal sickness and COVID, and stressed the importance of proper safety precautions.

“We begin to guess, is this influenza, upper respiratory, or COVID? That’s why it’s important, we have to have an abundance of testing to figure out what it is, testing for influenza or strep, to make sure. Someone at the end of those three months, they should be tested, especially if they start to have signs and symptoms. If they don’t want that nasal probe again, quarantine.

“Quarantine’s going to help stop the spread of influenza, other respiratory problems, or COVID. The problem is, it’s 14 days they have to be separated, versus just getting tested, and getting treated. Above all, even if we’ve had COVID, … stay home. Don’t go to work.”

The need to keep people from going to work, Gamble said, is a key factor, as he points out that many people commonly work through illnesses in order to save sick days for emergencies, or for vacations, or other uses. Doing so, he said, exposes others to sicknesses of any variety and poses a risk.

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