We checked with our Chief Infection Control Officer Roy Chemaly, M.D. He shared these five Dos and Don’ts to help guide you.
1. DON’T assume you’re immune from COVID-19
The most important thing to do is NOT assume you’re immune to the coronavirus, even if you’ve had a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis before.
“We’ve already seen at least four different variants crop up — alpha, delta, mu, and omicron — in the last two years,” says Chemaly. “Some have caused worse disease than others, but one consistent feature of all of them is that they’ve become more adept at evading our bodies’ defenses. So, even if you had a severe case of an earlier strain and made a full recovery with no complications, other circulating variants could still infect you. And brand new variants may still be on the horizon.”
2. DO get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19
Whether immunity stems from a vaccine or actual exposure to the virus, experts now know that the protection it provides is only partial — and temporary. Scientists have confirmed that antibody response wanes over time, which means that people will continue to need supplemental doses and booster shots to provide on-going protection.
"We actually have data now proving that immune response starts off strong after vaccination and then tapers off after a while,” adds Chemaly. “So, even if you have some immunity built up from a natural infection, it won't last forever.”
The COVID-19 vaccines are still doing exactly what they’re intended to do, though, which is to prevent severe illness and death, in most cases. COVID-19 vaccines won’t necessarily prevent transmission, especially as immunity wanes, but boosting still provides people with the most protection possible. So, it’s important to stay up-to-date with your COVID-19 vaccinations.
You can get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you’re eligible to leave isolation, but if you received monoclonal antibodies while you were recovering from a COVID infection, you should wait 90 days first.
It’s also important to remember that cancer patients, survivors, and others who are immunocompromised may not develop any antibodies at all — whether in response to natural infection or to COVID-19 vaccines.
3. DO keep taking all the recommended COVID-19 precautions
It’s equally important to continue practicing all the behaviors experts recommend to prevent possible reinfection, such as wearing a mask, physical distancing, and washing your hands. This does more than just set a good example for others. It also protects the most vulnerable among us if there’s even the slightest chance you might still be contagious.
How do you determine if that applies to you? According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines:
General public/mild or asymptomatic infections: Otherwise healthy individuals who did not have severe infections are deemed safe to be around others if 10 full days have elapsed since the initial onset of symptoms and they’ve been symptom-free for at least 24 hours. Both that group and those who tested positive but remained asymptomatic can leave isolation after 5 days, provided they continue to mask well for an additional 5 days.
Immunocompromised/severe infections: People who are immunocompromised and/or had a severe infection should wait up to 20 days from the onset of symptoms and be symptom-free for at least 24 hours before being around others.
Severely immunocompromised: These individuals should consult their care teams before they start socializing again.
Remaining committed to preventive strategies is especially critical if you’re caring for a cancer patient or someone who is immunocompromised. Because even if you have immunity, notes Chemaly, they might not. And, you could still pick up a different strain or other germs in public and then bring them back to your household, inadvertently exposing — and infecting — your loved ones.
“Take the same precautions you would as if you had not had COVID-19,” says Chemaly. “Avoid large gatherings of people, and act as if reinfection is still a possibility. Because we know now that it absolutely is.”
Still, says Chemaly, “You don’t need to wear a mask or stay socially distanced from people living in your own household, once you’ve met the CDC’s criteria for ending isolation.”
5. DO quarantine yourself again if you’re re-exposed to COVID-19
One of the hallmarks of viruses is that they never stop mutating, or changing over time. And just because you’ve developed antibodies to one strain of the coronavirus doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be effective against later versions.
That’s why it’s still a good idea to quarantine yourself if you think you may have been exposed to someone else who has COVID-19, especially if it’s been more than three months since you recovered from an infection yourself.
“Every mutation changes the landscape again, so there are no guarantees,” says Chemaly. “If you're exposed to someone with COVID-19, follow the CDC's quarantine guidelines, just to be on the safe side.”