I tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies … so now what?
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As we learn that COVID-19 was circulating in our communities far before we all imagined, I’ve always had the question, “Have I been exposed to COVID-19 already?” in the back of my mind.
On March 11, 2020, I recorded a podcast with travel expert Matt Kepnes aka Nomadic Matt at The Points Guy’s New York headquarters (one of my favorite episodes, btw), and three days later he became extremely ill and within five days had a confirmed positive case for COVID-19. Thankfully, Matthew eventually made a full recovery.
Meantime, I had also been traveling extensively.
Simply put, the odds were not in my favor, even if I did use more than my body weight in Purell while I was still working in the office.
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Curiosity got the best of me when I woke up recently to a CNBC article announcing that Quest Diagnostics would offer COVID-19 antibody testing to consumers for $119. I went online, answered a simple questionnaire and then was presented with an option for an appointment at a location near me in Pennsylvania at 1 p.m. that day. Three hours later, masked and gloved up, I went into the Quest Diagnostics site at a local strip mall. There was not a single person in the waiting room. (I had expected a packed waiting room of coughing people.) You may want to sign up sooner rather than later. We’re getting anecdotal reports that spots are filling up and the longer you wait to sign up you may experience significantly longer waits for a test.
I scanned my QR code on the iPad and waited no more than five minutes before a friendly nurse with a full-face visor came to get me. She pulled a vial of blood and voilà!, I was done. I asked about turnaround time and she guessed 5-10 days, but lo and behold, I woke up to an email from Quest at 5:30 a.m.: “Your Quest Diagnostic Lab Results Are Now Available.” (FYI, in order to get this alert, you need to set up a MyQuest account and confirm your email and a waiver.)
I logged in and at first saw “OUT OF RANGE,” which didn’t quite make sense and then saw “POSITIVE” below that. So, was my result positive that it was out of range of COVID, meaning negative? It was a little confusing, but the next page made it crystal clear.
In no uncertain terms, the test was telling me I had had COVID-19 and potentially still do, though I find that hard to believe since I’ve been in near-isolation in a rural area with no symptoms for almost seven weeks now. I had no major symptoms. I maybe had a little scratchy throat and some minor stomach issues after I left New York, but I thought it was more my life in the woods and changing to a normal routine and certainly nothing out of the ordinary.
OK, great. On the one hand, I’m happy that I didn’t have terrible symptoms like so many have reported.
But what does this actually mean for the future? To be honest, the first thing I thought of was booking a flight!
Before I pulled the trigger on anything, I decided to turn to Healthline Media’s Head of Medical Affairs Hanh Le, M.D. Healthline Media is owned by TPG parent company Red Ventures, and has a ton of resources on coronavirus including on testing.
Q & A
BK: What does this test really mean? We don’t know if this will be future immunity, but is it safe to say I am not going to get it again this season?
Dr. Le: You’re going through the exact dilemma that A LOT of people have experienced. Unfortunately, just because this test has identified antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t necessarily mean that you have current or future immunity, so no, it does not mean that you can assume that you are not going to get COVID-19 this season or next season.
You may be immune and not get it, but because these tests were rushed to market without the requisite testing to validate their true-positive/true-negative precision or whether it tested positive for other coronaviruses instead of just SARS-CoV-2, we only have a tiny snapshot of the bigger picture that would be needed to give you (or anyone in your position) the reassurance that they are immune now and in the distant future. It’s not reassuring, unfortunately.
BK: Do we know if it’s possible to get COVID-19 twice in the same season? Could I get it again next week and possibly get severe symptoms? Is it a waste for people to pay $120 because the result means nothing really?
Dr. Le: That has been my conclusion from what I’ve seen. More than anything, if it’s negative, people find it “reassuring,” but it can also lead to a false sense of security.
BK: Does this mean I can’t transmit COVID-19 to loved ones? Can I be in close contact with my nieces and nephews now? I know they’ve been feeling cooped up and I’d love to be able to be around them, but I don’t want to inadvertently transmit the virus.
Dr. Le: Unfortunately, again, without knowing which antibodies were found, it doesn’t confirm that you are not shedding the virus (i.e., not contagious). I can definitely understand the feelings of being stir-crazy. The best recommendations here rely more on duration of symptoms. I would ask you whether you’ve had any symptoms for the past 14-30 days, and were you in quarantine during that time, not exposed to others who have been confirmed to have COVID?
If so, then the chances are that, even if you did have COVID, you’ve likely passed the infectious period. HOWEVER, without any confirmation testing, that is an educated guess based on the data that we currently have. I would discourage traveling back and forth between a lot of different homes.
It’s a risk no matter what. What is the risk-benefits calculation in your situation when you factor in mental and emotional well-being and the health status of all people involved? Since I don’t know if your extended family members have high-risk health conditions, I cannot comment on that, but it really is a case-by-case risk-benefits calculation.
BK: What are the chances of this being a false positive?
Dr. Le: A false positive means that someone might seek out medical care in a clinic or hospital unnecessarily, thereby exposing themselves to higher risk while taking up medical resources without ever needing to. While getting confirmation testing, it also exposes the person to other potentially invasive testing and treatments (and a high level of anxiety) that the person didn’t need.
It’s interesting that you did the test and got caught right in that same predicament of “NOW WHAT?” It’s unfortunate that people are paying for these tests to get greater clarity and reassurance and end up getting neither.
So now what?
I appreciate Dr. Le’s candor and bringing me back to reality that this positive tests leaves more questions unanswered than answered, but the eternal optimist in me is hopeful that immunity will be permanent for those with antibodies. That would make it safer for us to help those at risk by donating plasma (though as a gay man I might be discriminated against like Andy Cohen from the “Real Housewives” empire was when he tried to donate plasma), and help with herd immunity. It might even allow us to think about booking a plane ticket again.
Scientists are optimistic about immunity. Dr. Aneesh Mehta is with the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, and told ABC News:
“Results so far have been telling, but time’s required to gauge the strength and longevity of the average person’s antibody response. We believe that the antibodies that we’re detecting do confer some level of protection, but we want to know how much and how long that protection lasts. It’s now known that antibodies produced in patients who contracted SARS, which emerged less than two decades ago and belongs to the same coronavirus family as COVID-19, confer protective immunity for several years.”
So while my test results don’t fundamentally change anything for me right now, I do have to say I have peace of mind that my immune system is strong and will hopefully be able to fight off any future strains even if I’m not immune.
For all the latest news on the outbreak go to our dedicated coverage page.
And as much as I want to hop on a plane again (even if I do have to wear a mask for the duration), I’m going to wait until the scientists on the front lines can confirm that doing so won’t unduly strain front-line workers who have been the real heroes in this crisis.
Related: TSA to allow face masks in security
We all know a vaccine isn’t coming anytime soon, but with increased testing and therapeutics hopefully we can all make appropriate risk decisions for ourselves and our families on when it will be safe to travel again. I am hopeful this could eventually allow me to travel more, for example to Europe, if they allow travelers who’ve already had (and beat) coronavirus. Or eventually, as Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian suggested, by carrying an “immunity passport.”
For me, I’m staying on terra firma, but currently planning an epic summer road trip.
The Airsteam Guy has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?!
Featured image from the Points Guy archives.
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