As Americans grapple with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s strong warning to stay at home this winter to stop the spread of the coronavirus, some are wondering if they are exempt from the recommendation if they have already recovered from the illness.
People who had the coronavirus can develop antibodies that circulate in the blood and can neutralize the pathogen. But questions around immunity still linger. The CDC says cases of reinfection have been reported but “are rare.”
It hasn’t stopped people from traveling, though. Last month, the Icelandic government announced visitors who can prove they have recovered from a coronavirus infection can skip the country’s new border measures when they arrive. After recovering from the coronavirus in March, travel blogger and author Matt Kepnes, 39, resumed traveling in the United States and Mexico, albeit with caution.
“I got tested before I went and I isolated before and during, just making sure that I was fine,” Kepnes said.
But should you travel if you already had the coronavirus? The short answer is no. The CDC guidelines of avoiding nonessential travel apply to everyone.
While scientists have discovered the body’s defenses against the coronavirus — antibodies, T cells and B cells — may persist for three months, health experts warn against traveling, as recovered coronavirus patients can get reinfected.
“If someone has recovered from [COVID], they are still encouraged to follow all of the COVID-19 travel recommendations,” John Brooks, the chief medical officer for the CDC’s coronavirus response, said in an email. “Although the risk of becoming infected again immediately after recovery (i.e., in the next 90 days) appears low, we do not know how much protection recovered people may have.”
Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists, agrees. Early on in the pandemic, many scientists dismissed the threat of reinfection, he says, but we now know there are many cases of reinfection, including among patients in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
“It’s not a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of thing,” he says. “It’s kind of like car crashes are still rare, but when they do happen, it’s really bad. Ninety-nine point nine percent time when you get in the car, you’re not going to get in a car accident, but you still buckle your seat belt.”
Brooks says we do not know how often people may develop a mild, symptomless infection after a previous infection and still pose a risk of infecting others.
Therefore the CDC is requesting all travelers, even those who have recently recovered from the coronavirus, to reconsider or postpone travel during the holidays.
The confusion over reinfection is another example of how we have had to adjust our response to the virus as we better understand it, Feigl-Ding says. As it’s better to err on the side of caution, and approach travel accordingly.
“Right now there’s too much we don’t know, and from experience this past pandemic … the virus has always been more insidious than we expected,” Feigl-Ding says. “Let’s always be on the precautionary side for both the epidemiologic transmission reasons as well as the sociological reasons of wearing a mask and still setting a good example.”