This post will answer these questions:
- If I get sick and recover can I get sick again?
- Am I immune from re-infection forever?
- How do I know if I’m immune?
People often ask me how I feel. I usually tell them that for me, and I assume for other people with mild cases, this virus feels like having the flu. I have been blessed to never have had the flu (Vaccines rule!) but that’s what I’ve been telling people. In reality, the symptoms are unlike any illness I’ve ever had before. The cough is similar to a bad bronchitis, but the general feel of it is hard to describe. The best I can say is that its a full body ick. I just feel icky. This feeling is different from the muscle aches (those were unpleasant as well) . It’s more of a difficult to describe crummy feeling that is altogether miserable.
Fortunately for me, the acetaminophen helps and things are getting better with time, albeit slowly. Every day the ick fades ever so slightly. The problem is, that as the ick fades, the blah caused by being stuck in the basement increases. Now I have a dynamic combination of ick and blah, precisely tuned to create an overall sense of bleck. As you can see, it’s hard to describe.
Now that I am at day 6, and see that I am improving, even if slowly, I am confident I will not be one of the patients that deteriorates around this time. This creates optimism for full recovery.
I think it’s interesting to think about what ‘recovery’ means. I wrote a post about 2 months ago called “How this coronavirus makes you sick“. It was actually 2 days ago but it feels like 2 months when you are stuck in your basement (Is today Wednesday or Thursday?). I ventured to explain how this virus causes the particular symptoms it does. In that post, I described how many of the symptoms we feel are not caused by the virus itself but by the immune response to the virus. In other words, I am my own ick factory.
The immune system, like all things in biology, is a precisely tuned balance between components that crank it up and components that crank it down. These things are precisely in balance so that you can be prepared for an invader while not having the system running haywire at all times. When the coronavirus hits you, the balance shifts and the immune response escalates. Then, as the virus starts to be cleared, the system has to be turned down to prevent excessive collateral damage. In fact, it’s likely that elderly and chronically ill people are getting such a severe form of this infection because their immune system is unable to maintain this balance causing the system to go haywire. Turning it down, is just as important as turning it up.
With viral infections, your immune system first produces an antibody called immunoglobulin M or IgM. It’s the first responder antibody and offers a more general response to infection. As the infection progresses, the immune system starts producing an antibody called immunoglobulin G or IgG. This is a specific antibody that is more effective at neutralizing the intruder guilty of the current infection.
With recovery, the immune response is turned down but the IgG antibodies hang around. Eventually they decrease in numbers but don’t go away altogether. The body creates antibodies producing memory cells cells that circulate looking for the intruder to come back. If it does, they can ratchet up the immune response quickly so the virus is cleared before it makes you sick. This is how vaccines work. You get an injection of part of the virus and develop a mild immune response. You then get the memory B cells without getting the full disease.
The real question is whether this coronavirus will lead to life long immunity. Unfortunately, like most things in medicine, it’s not a yes or no answer. For some viruses, like measles and polio, these antibodies are around for your entire life, but for others it’s not so long. For some infections like tetanus you need a regular “booster” to prolong the immune response. Some viruses, like the flu, mutate and you need a new vaccine every year. The bottom line is, that not all viruses are the same in this regard.
Coronaviruses come in different flavors. There are the mild ones that cause the common cold. Immunity to these coronaviruses last only about 1-3 years. The severe coronavirus that is afflicting us now is more like the one that caused SARS outbreak in 2003. That one was named SARS-CoV1 and this one SARS-CoV2 because they are similar in many ways. Most people infected during with SARS-CoV1 outbreak developed immunity lasting 8-10 years. Another similar virus that caused the MERS outbreak a few years after SARS produced immunity that was not as durable.
This all leads to the following questions:
- How long does immunity to this coronavirus last? The range of outcomes is one year to life long. Obviously that question can only be answered by testing people over several years to find out. If immunity is only for a short time, this raises the concern of a resurgence of the pandemic. I don’t want to go through this again and I’m sure you don’t either.
- If people have a mild case or have no symptoms at all does that mean their immunity will not last as long or does it mean that they did such a good job making antibodies that it will last longer?
These are very important questions for a number of reasons:
- If people are immune they can return to the workforce and regular life without fear of spreading the disease or getting sick again themselves. This would help the economic fallout.
- We could reintroduce immune doctors and nurses to fill in the vacancies caused by sick hospital staff. Perhaps all the recovered doctors and nurses could help out in New York. You can also see how flattening the curve would be important here since it would allow healthcare workers who got sick time to recover and return to work before there are too many patients in the hospital.
- If immunity is durable it means that vaccines will be more effective. And if I hear ONE WORD from an anti-Vaxxer I will cough all over them!
The main problem I am seeing currently is that there are many people who are sick and are not getting tested. They are appropriately assuming they have the coronavirus, but may have something else. I had a patient in the ICU last week who had all the symptoms but it turned out he had the flu (COVID-19 testing was negative). One of the nurses who I exposed felt sick and stayed home. She eventually got tested and was negative (talk about a bad time to get a cold). What this means is that there are people who will assume they are immune to COVID-19 when in fact they never had the disease to begin with. It’s not like the rest of the viruses are taking a vacation. Millions of people may get a virus at this time which has nothing to do with COVID-19. They will then think they are immune when they are not and stop all the usual precautions. This will increase the risk of a resurgence of the pandemic. Another issue would be if people get a mild infection which does not create a robust enough response to generate protective antibodies. There are currently companies and health departments working on developing testing to see if there are IgG antibodies which would be proof of immunity and should solve this problem but remember how hard it has been to get the initial testing scaled up.
Since I have a confirmed case, I am confident I will be immune after recovery. I just don’t know for how long. If immune I will be able to do all the dangerous stuff in the hospital such as the aerosolizing procedures and fill in for people when they get sick. In a way this feels like a bit of a superpower but is nothing special and hopefully its a power we all will share soon so we can put this virus in the history books.
14 thoughts on “When am I immune?”
Bravo! Dr. Grove for this excellent website. I am in ICU physician assistant here in Baltimore.I have been recommending it to family and friends. It presents the information in an easy to read format and appears to be well researched and thorough. Thanks for your work on this and may you continue to have a רפואה שלמה.
Blog is very informative
Glad you are doing better
I Remember you from Edison
Dr marc hanfling
No capes! 1. It could carry germs. 2. Didn’t you see the movie The Incredibles? 😉
Seriously, you’re discussion on how long immunity could last is helpful.
good points …What is known about sub acute individuals who don’t mount an immune response and are non clinical but have the Covid 19 still able to transmit the virus to others, who then become clinically sick, and possibly severely affected? Do asymptomatic carriers continue to harbor this or, sars or, mers virus and for how long could the viruses shed and their own immune system not recognize it as foreign … ?
what would be the long term out comes for their own health?
Do you think pregnancy risk is dependent on gestation age at time of viremia?
You are very brave and honest.
May you feel better and stronger each minute!
wishing you a speedy recovery! Sorry you’re stuck in the basement!
All the surgical PAs at GSH
thank you so much, your blog has been eye opening and is so appreciated. How long is a Covid patient contagious? ive been reading alot, i dont see that addressed much. Mostly i see discussions about the incubation period which i understand to be up to 14 days, correct me if im wrong. thank you
hi Dr Grove
im glad you are on the mend! im thinking of you!!
Dear Dr Grove, I want to wish you a speedy recovery, and thank you for starting this blog. As a way of introduction, my name is Jack and I am an MD/PhD currently in my residency training. Recently, I started a YouTube channel dedicated to all tropics related to medicine and science. It is intended for the general public. As such I am reaching out to you to see if you are able and willing to do a brief interview for my YouTube channel, as my viewers would love to hear about your story and process of recovery. i would be honored and thrilled to have you as a guest. Please email me at SciTalks2.firstname.lastname@example.org if you can. I can discuss the specifics through email. I want to once again wish you a speedy and healthy recovery.
Thank you for your information and dedicated work in the medical field.
Thanks for enlightening us in this difficult time. We appreciate the effort and time you’ve put in, and your writing style is very entertaining, despite the fact that you weren’t feeling well. Refuah Shelaima.
Your in-laws, Hindy and Shmuel
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Thank you Dr. Grove! Refuah shlaimah! My mother came to visit and has been dealing with COVID. It took over a week to get results and then my sisters Gd bless them were insisting that my mother is now immune so she could go to Lakewood. Dealing with them has been the most frustrating part of helping my mom. I tried explaining that even if she is immune to COVID because she is so weak she is much more susceptible to all other sicknesses and all medical staff is maxxed out in the lakewood area. She is in Sinai at this moment. I hope she gets better soon and can be released. She is all alone and that is very hard. Be well, and thank you for working on this website while you are sick to help others!
I agree with you.