Editor’s note: Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelancer who writes the Gather column for The Seattle Times’ Pacific NW Magazine. She wrote earlier about her experience with COVID-19. Here’s her follow-up story.
It’s been nearly two months since I and a handful of my friends were exposed to the novel coronavirus, and it’s been a month since we emerged, completely by accident, as some of the nation’s first people to recover from COVID-19. Recently, some of us gave what we hope will be many donations of antibody-filled blood for research into possible treatments and vaccines.
I’ve rarely been as excited as I was to give that blood. I won’t lie — part of it was the thrill of having a legitimate reason to climb into my car, drive downtown and meet new human beings for the first time since I got sick.
But more than that, I’m so happy to be able to do something. It’s easy for me, like others, to feel helpless in the face of an invisible enemy attacking all of humanity. For the most part, the best thing we can do is nothing — go nowhere, see no one but those in our households, engage in only what we can accomplish in our own homes or neighborhoods. It’s deeply frustrating.
My situation is a bit different, because I’m in a small but growing category: people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. And I’m wondering: What’s next for me and my fellow survivors? What role should we play in this new world we inhabit?
We’re likely immune to this virus, at least to some extent and for some amount of time. Our bodies respond to it the same way they do to similar viruses. A very simplified explanation of how this works: Viruses invade our cells and replicate within them, undetected at first. After a few days, the body notices evidence of the virus and begins producing antibodies, proteins that systematically destroy the virus until it’s gone.
Antibodies don’t just disappear after the illness is over. The body was tricked once; it’s not about to let this virus trick it again. The cells that produce antibodies, called “memory cells,” stay vigilant, watching for the virus and ready to beef up the antibody army if the need arises. I imagine these antibodies patrolling with giant hammers, or with chain-saw arms like Ash in the “Evil Dead” movies, eager to pounce on the enemy.
That’s why we typically don’t get sick again from a given virus anytime soon after we’ve had it. (Experts believe reported COVID-19 “reinfections” — cases where people tested positive, then negative, then positive again — were more likely the result of false negatives.) People with antibodies for a virus become dead ends in its chain of transmission, and herd immunity begins.
Because this is such a new virus, there’s a lot we don’t know. For example, will people with different severity of illness build different numbers and quality of antibodies? How long will the antibodies stick around?
Scientists can guess based on what they know of other coronaviruses, including those responsible for the common cold. Most of them say that I’ll likely be immune for at least the better part of a year, as with a typical cold virus. People who recovered from the original SARS had high levels of antibodies for at least two years.
Another question: Could my antibodies help treat patients with active cases of COVID-19? Mount Sinai Hospital in New York has already started infusing COVID-19 patients with blood plasma from recovered patients. Down the road, could my antibodies help scientists create vaccines? Clinical trials are looking at these questions, and I’m happy to help. (Researchers: Get in touch! Take my blood! I’ll make more!)
While my heart pumped my blood into vials the other day, I thought about the fear I see in the eyes of people wearing masks at the grocery store. I am acutely aware of the privilege I have in not being afraid.
I also thought about the many who suspect they had COVID-19 but weren’t able to get tested while they were sick. Antibody tests, which are just coming online, might be able to tell who’s had COVID-19 in the recent past, giving those folks the certainty I have now.
This brings up a whole new layer of questions. Some scientists and policymakers have suggested that people with COVID-19 antibodies should emerge from lockdown, go back to their workplaces and help jump-start the economy. Which makes me wonder: Should I take a public-facing job? I’m in no way medically trained, but is there any way I could be useful in a hospital?
Or maybe I could deliver supplies to vulnerable folks? Most nonprofits aren’t using volunteers right now, for fear of spreading infection. I would like to volunteer without fear of becoming infected again or of infecting others — though I’d want to be certain that was the case, which would require more time and research, and I would still need to keep up protocols to avoid spreading it with my hands.
Also: What does social distancing look like for people who’ve already had COVID-19? One of my “positive” friends joked that Seattle should reopen one bar for recovered people. There could eventually be enough of us to make up a live audience for artists and venues now teetering on the edge of permanent closures.
One question: If it will, indeed, be safe for us to go out and about, how can we demonstrate that without appearing to openly flout the social distancing norms so essential to winning this fight? How do we prove to others that we’re low risk?
My friends and I have joked about special ID cards, T-shirts, maybe even tattoos. In Germany, they’re mulling the idea of “immunity passports.” “Those who are immune could be issued with a kind of vaccination pass that would for example allow them to be exempted from restrictions on their activity,” epidemiologist Gérard Krause told The Guardian.
Then there’s the other kind of passport. Could I help airlines and hotels and the many small businesses that rely on travelers — and get out of the house at the same time? I could visit far-flung family members, some of whom are facing life-threatening illnesses of their own.
There may be a darker side to this freedom. Some worry that until a vaccine is widely available, we could divide into a two-tiered society, where immune people go on with normal life while vulnerable folks are stuck in their houses. It’s not a pleasant thought, even as I yearn to hit the road.
I also wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to think that seeking out this illness is a good idea, because even young, healthy people can grow sick enough to need hospitalization, suffer permanent lung damage or even die. I survived, but it was no picnic. Avoiding the virus until a vaccine is available is a better strategy.
We’re all figuring this out as we go. For now, I’m demonstrating good social distancing practices, joining videoconference happy hours and watching way too much TV like everyone else. But I hope I can find answers soon. I’m here, I’m well and I’m willing.