People who recover from COVID-19 may develop antibodies in response to the coronavirus that causes the illness. That much we know. But the reliability of the tests that detect those antibodies (and even the reliability of tests for an active coronavirus infection) is still in question. And even in cases where people feel confident in the results of their antibody test, the level of immunity conferred by those antibodies, and how long it may last, is unclear.
Not everyone has internalized that uncertainty. “I have immunity. I’ve already had the virus, so I can’t get it again and I can’t give it to anybody,” Kentucky senator Rand Paul told reporters last month while defending his decision to not wear a mask at the Capitol. Unlike Paul, the six people with positive antibody tests who recently spoke to Intelligencer remain cautious about changing their behavior despite the knowledge that they may be immune to reinfection.
Mike, 33, interior designer, Brooklyn
The thing that tipped me off that it was probably COVID was that I lost all sense of smell and taste. There was a night toward the end of my fever when my wife roasted a whole chicken in the oven and I had no idea there was anything cooking. Then a couple days later, as I was starting to feel better, I made a curry that she said was the spiciest she’s ever eaten. So clearly there was something wrong with my taste buds and my sense of smell. We were pretty sure I had it.
A week ago we went to get the antibody test just to be totally sure. Part of the reason I waited so long is because I don’t have a lot of faith that we know enough to say, Yes, since I have antibodies I’m totally immune. Generally, we’ve been trying to be as as cautious as possible since then, both to not spread it to others and to keep ourselves from being exposed again.
I feel a little more confident that I’m not going to contract it as easily, but having read about some speculation that people might have re-contracted coronavirus, I figure it’s better to play it safe. I take my dog for a walk every day and I put on a mask. We mostly do delivery for our food or get contactless pick up. We’re still kind of sticking to the protocol.
Krystal, 36, actress, Upper West Side
I took the test because I was afraid that what I had wasn’t COVID-19 and I wanted to make sure it was. I also wanted to donate plasma. It’s the least I could do to help.
I was just reading about a study at Beth Israel and that seemed to be pretty affirmative [that antibodies provide immunity] but I feel like it just keeps going back and forth. I don’t want to take the chance of getting it again.
I get upset when I see people not following the rules, which is why I still continue to follow them, even if I might be immune. I feel like it’s the responsible thing to do, to set a good example.
I heard when I was signing up to donate plasma that one donation could help three people. After I donated, I posted about it on social media and a nurse I know from high school said she had used antibodies on a patient. I don’t know too much about it. I just knew that it would be helpful to donate and it didn’t cost me anything other than an afternoon.
Chaim, 24, salesperson, Kiryas Joel, New York
I had very mild symptoms. I only had a fever for three nights. My wife was hit a little harder. She lost her taste and smell for like a week. When I heard that everybody who had symptoms should get tested for antibodies, I went and tested positive.
I wanted to donate plasma for the people who are sick to help find a way to heal them. I had to be symptom-free for 14 days before donating. But in New York there was no place to donate. They were overbooked, I guess. Many Hasidic Jews have been donating plasma. So I drove about two hours to Pennsylvania.
I am young. I have good health records and I am not so concerned about the virus. Even if I get it again, hopefully I can fight it and nothing bad will happen to me. So the antibodies test did not change me much. I did not start doing anything different because of the antibodies. I still wear a mask.
Cindi, 52, teacher, Magnolia, Texas
My symptoms started with fever, muscle aches and lethargy. I called the doctor immediately and they thought I had the flu. On March 6, in the South, we weren’t even talking COVID. So I was treated for the flu. About four weeks later I was still coughing. My symptoms lingered that long. That’s when I started thinking this wasn’t the stinking flu. So I went and had an antibody test done and it came back positive.
I think I’ve battled with this logically versus empathetically. I still mask, and in Texas, in the area I’m in, a suburb north of Houston, I would guess somewhere around 25 percent of people mask in public. I still do. Of course, my understanding is that’s not for me. And even though I know I’m probably not someone who can transmit the virus at this point, I still mask out of my respect for my fellow man.
Logically, I probably am not in danger, but reality is we just don’t know for sure. I am probably more willing to go into stores and to go into public places than I was prior to my antibody positive test. But I continue to do my best to social distance and mask. I carry hand sanitizer in my purse.
When the government made the decision to open, people took it as a free for all. I don’t see them following the guidelines. A lot of the political rhetoric is that this is no worse than the flu. Sadly, people are buying that. I fear for people.
Greg, 42, volunteer coordinator, the Bronx
I was not very sick. I had a low fever for a couple of days, chills, dizziness, fatigue. A bit of a sore throat. I never lost my sense of smell or taste. I never had any issues breathing. At that point, only people that were very ill needed to get tested, at least around here.
My wife was pretty sure I had it. When New York City started doing the antibody tests for any resident, I jumped on that and it came out positive. I was actually pleased to know that that’s what it was and that I do have the antibodies.
I remember Dr. Fauci said at one point that if this behaves like any other virus, you’ll have immunity after recovering. They’ve kind of changed their tune on that. I still mask up and glove up. There’s no real reason to risk it. It’s not like I’m going to get a T-shirt that says, I have the antibodies. I’m good. I still have every intention of wearing masks and wearing gloves when I need to. By the same token, it is nice to know that I at least have some level of resistance to it, if not complete immunity. It is nice to know that.
Holly, 27, public relations, Springfield, Oregon
I was living in New York at the time. I’m now in Oregon with my parents, hunkering down. I had a fever, achiness, tiredness, some chills, and body aches for five or six days and those were pretty much my only symptoms. I didn’t really have too much of a cough.
I was really unsure if I had it because I didn’t have too bad of a cough or shortness of breath, which were kind of the key symptoms. But I had all the other symptoms and people in my building were sick and I was in New York so it just made sense. I didn’t get tested because it wasn’t recommended at the time unless you were in really bad shape. I didn’t want to take a test from someone who actually needed it.
I was in the city for a few more weeks until I was sure I was symptom free, then I flew back to Oregon to stay with my parents for a while. I was just really curious if I had it. The symptoms manifest differently for so many different people. I would always be wondering if I never got tested. I just found out yesterday I tested positive for antibodies.
I haven’t really started relaxing too much. I’m still a little hesitant. I know the antibody test only has a 95 percent accuracy rate, so there’s still a 5 percent chance it was wrong. Or there’s not that much evidence saying that once you have had it you’re immune. I think I will loosen up a little bit. But in the back of my head it’s still nagging — what if the test was wrong or what if I get it again, even if the chances are slim.