Central Coast resident Mitch Rogers has just come out of two weeks of complete isolation, which he says was “pretty tough”.
After contracting COVID earlier this year, the 32-year-old, who lives alone, retired to his Umina Beach home to get rid of the symptoms. They ended up taking 14 days to subside, double the mandatory seven-day isolation period.
But when he re-entered the world on Monday and returned to his job in the care sector, he was far from relieved. “I feel more cautious and nervous,” he says.
In part, he is concerned that he may still be contagious and inadvertently transmit the virus to someone else. (He thinks he caught the virus from someone who had recently left isolation and thought they were ready.)
But above all, he is afraid of getting sick again.
“Booster talk is confusing, some sources say you’re supposed to be immune for six months, others say six weeks,” he says.
“I went to a takeaway place and I was the only person wearing a mask. I could not remember if the rules changed, but I did not feel safe not to wear one.”
More than a million Australians have now had COVID, and while many who have recently contracted the virus describe it as a weight off their shoulders, for others like Mitch, the anxiety remains.
So does a COVID-19 infection mean you will not get it again? And how careful should you be when leaving the insulation? Here’s what the experts say.
I recently got over COVID. Can I have it again?
Yes, but probably not in a while.
This is because infections, like vaccinations, help your body create antibodies that ward off SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19. This immunity is most powerful immediately after an illness when the cellular memory of the infection and neutralizing antibodies are strongest.
“A person who has been vaccinated before and then gets an Omicron infection effectively gets their immunity ‘boosted’ by infection in the same way as a third dose vaccine,” says Professor Miles Davenport, who heads the Kirby Institute’s Infection Analytics Program.
“The expectation is that this ‘boost’ to immunity should provide high levels of protection against Omicron infection for a significant period of time, probably up to 12 months.”
Experts estimate that Omicron currently accounts for up to 90 percent of COVID-19 cases nationwide. However, due to the influx of cases and delays in genomic testing, many people will not know if they have received Omicron or the earlier and more dangerous Delta strain.
“Infection with one variant generally provides a degree of protection against other variants,” says Professor Davenport. Therefore, infection with Omicron will provide the strongest protection against [reinfection with] Omicron – but also weaker protection against other variants. “
Recent research from South Africa suggests that people who have recovered from Omicron may be better placed to stop a Delta infection. The study of 15 participants who had recently been infected with Omicron, led by the Africa Health Research Institute, showed that the participant’s ability to neutralize the Delta variant increased more than four times. The results have not yet been peer-reviewed.
However, the same does not seem to be true conversely, where Omicron can more easily avoid immunity from other variants. Yet epidemiologist Mary-louise McLaws, who advises the World Health Organization on COVID-19, says it’s pretty safe to assume you’re not re-infected with any variant within three months of recovery.
This is because neutralizing antibodies are at their highest in the period before they begin to decline. “With Omicron and Delta, we’ll probably not have our antibodies forever,” she says.
How long does the protection last?
It’s up for debate, and it’s likely to differ from person to person. Like Professor McLaws, Professor Steven Tong, an infectious disease doctor at the Doherty Institute, estimates that people who have recently recovered from Omicron should “have a fairly high level of protection” for at least three months.
“It’s too early with Omicron, we do not really know,” says Professor Tong. “Although I can speculate that I think you want some protection, we do not know for sure.”
In New South Wales, the health authorities are playing it safe. While there is an exception in place, which means that people who have recently recovered from the virus do not need to isolate themselves if they are in close contact, this only applies to people who have had the virus in the past month. .
“People who have recovered from COVID-19 have a low risk of getting it again within the 28 days after you are released, as most people develop some immunity,” reads the NSW Health website.
But a bigger problem is whether another variant that is able to avoid pre-existing antibodies, like Omicron, will come along. And if so, when?
“We do not know what will happen in six months,” says Professor Tong.
“People who have been infected with Omicron, you can not say whether they can be re-infected with another variant or not – but theoretically it is possible.”
What about boosters?
Despite any previous COVID infection, you should still get the booster.
But the increase in the number of infections has unfortunately coincided with the rush of vaccine agreements for children and booster eligibility for adults, which has created a logistical nightmare for organizing reservations.
Although you should not go to a vaccination appointment if you have COVID-19 or symptoms, experts still encourage people to get their booster injection as soon as they are able. But when is the best time?
Federal health councils are unclear: While it says vaccination can be delayed by up to six months after an infection, due to a reduced chance of re-infection during this time, it also advises that there is no requirement to do so.
Professor McLaws recommends that you wait three months after an infection to get a booster – provided you are feeling well – because this is where your neutralizing antibodies begin to wane. Professor Tong says, however, the sooner the better.
“If you’ve recovered from your acute illness, let’s say you’re two or three weeks off the track and you’re back to normal, then it’s a good time to get your third shot,” he says.
He stresses that even people who have recovered from the virus should still get the vaccine they are entitled to as it will help protect against re-infection and hospitalization.
“It seems, at least with previous variants, that a previous infection and then vaccination on top of that really gives you almost super immunity to COVID.”
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