The COVID-19 pandemic has raged on for ages, and it feels like a lifetime since we were all first asked to stay home, mask up, and socially distance ourselves from each other. Since then, COVID-19 vaccines have become our best line of defense against the virus. But whether you’ve been vaccinated or naturally infected and recovered from COVID-19, you may be wondering if you still need to wear a mask?
Recovered COVID patients still need to wear masks in public because of the risk of the mutation of the virus and the likelihood of long COVID symptoms. Masks also protect the wearer from reinfection and others from potential respiratory droplets which may continue to spread the virus.
Even after your infection has run its course, there are several reasons why you still need to wear a mask, to protect not only yourself but the people around you. This article will dive deep into the facts about the recovery process from COVID-19, immunity levels after infection, and why masks are still essential tools for public health.
The Recovery Time for COVID-19
After being infected with COVID-19, the main focus of any patient is a fast and complete recovery. Unfortunately, this simplifies the real struggle many people face to recover.
COVID is not like other illnesses. It is still being studied, but studies show that COVID has a much more extended incubation period and potential for long-term symptoms.
It is estimated that over 499 million people on Earth have recovered from the coronavirus. This figure is a rough estimate that mainly includes Western countries. There are likely many more people who recovered that were not hospitalized because they experienced only mild symptoms.
Some people who experienced no symptoms may not even know they were infected with COVID. They may not realize they have already recovered. For most people, recovery from the virus could be handled at home, but some require hospital intensive care or even ventilators.
The average recovery time from a COVID-19 infection lasts two weeks. Fever and other symptoms usually subside in mild cases after seven to ten days. The patient is usually no longer contagious two weeks after receiving a positive test.
If critical care is required, however, recovery times are much longer. Some people are only hospitalized for a few days, while others may be placed on ventilators in ICU for weeks. Some patients will not fully recover from the experience for months to a year after infection.
If you have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two years, you have probably been asked to stay home from school or work and avoid contact with others for a period of time.
Quarantine rules are put in place to protect coworkers, the public, and other members of your household. As soon as you feel ill or think you may be infected with coronavirus, it is a good idea to quarantine until you have a negative COVID test result.
Feeling well is not a good indicator of health. Even after a patient feels better, they can still spread the virus to other people.
Most people are not contagious after ten days, but the contagious period can be as long as 14 days and beyond. This variability is why it is vital to observe the full two-week quarantine time.
Taking a COVID test before returning to work or school can help to reassure you and those around you that you are no longer contagious. However, even with a negative test result after recovery, health scientists still recommend wearing a mask around others.
COVID’s Effects on the Immune System
You are likely aware that infection with any illness generally guarantees some level of immunity. The same is true for COVID-19, but more research is still in progress to determine how strong this natural immunity is and how long it lasts compared to vaccinations.
How Immunity Works
Our immune system reacts to the intruder when our bodies are infected with an illness, such as COVID. Our immune system’s reaction to the virus, not the virus itself, which causes us to feel symptoms.
When the virus infects our body, it begins replicating itself in our cells. This replication causes our immune system to react. Our body temperature rises, and our lungs cough to expel the virus from our system.
Eventually, given that the infected person survives, the immune system learns to recognize the virus’ RNA code. The immune system will remember exactly how to defeat the virus in the future. This physical preparedness is what is known as immunity.
How Long Does Immunity Last?
We are essentially immune for a lifetime to some diseases, like measles. Unfortunately, immunity to COVID-19 doesn’t last forever. Over time, immunity to COVID-19 fades, and people become susceptible to reinfection by the same strain and variants.
According to experts, immunization may last up to nine months after natural infection. However, this immunity time can be shorter than nine months, depending on the individual. Patients’ overall Health and immune system functioning play a role in how long the immunity lasts.
It’s challenging to know when your immunity has “run out,” so to speak. Antibody tests may determine how ready your immune system is to defend against COVID reinfection.
Because it is difficult to know precisely how long your immunity will last, it is essential to remain vigilant and observe CDC instructions for controlling the spread of COVID-19. Wearing masks and social distancing are still necessary tools in our fight to prevent the spread.
Some COVID-19 patients continue to experience symptoms long after their official recovery from the virus. These symptoms have come to be known as “long COVID.” They can last months after infection. Some people infected early on in the pandemic have still never fully recovered.
People hospitalized for COVID-19 treatment are more likely to develop long COVID. Symptoms of long COVID include:
- Brain fog
- Muscle aches and weakness
- Loss of taste or smell
- Anxiety and depression
- Shortness of breath
- Digestive issues
Experiencing symptoms of long COVID does not necessarily mean that you still have the virus in your system. It might mean that your immune system’s reaction never subsided back to normal after defeating the disease.
Long COVID symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath may also indicate possible permanent damage to the lungs. This issue is more likely with complicated COVID cases leading to hospitalization and ventilation.
If you are a victim of permanent or significant lung damage, it is vital to avoid reinfection and further lung damage from COVID and other illnesses. Lungs are very delicate organs that can take years to heal and may never heal completely.
Suffering from long COVID symptoms can increase the severity of any future viral infections. This susceptibility includes infections from seasonal colds and flu viruses. It also provides reinfection by different COVID variants or the same variant once immunity fades.
The Possibility of Reinfection
After people recover or are vaccinated for COVID-19, they can sometimes feel invincible. Although infection and vaccination provide some protection, reinfection is still a possibility. The fact is, you are not invincible.
Reinfection with COVID-19 is a real threat, especially if it has been several months since a patient’s recovery. Reinfection is even more likely when those around us and the general public do not wear masks.
How Likely Are You To Be Reinfected?
According to some clinical studies, you are likely to be reinfected at a percentage of 2.5%, most of which will occur within a year of the initial infection. However, factors such as exposure to the virus and underlying health issues make the likelihood far higher than this estimate.
Reinfection, while not highly likely, can occur in recovered COVID patients. Scientists and medical researchers are still conducting studies about the likelihood of catching COVID-19 again shortly after recovery.
One study focused on first responders and medical personnel infected with COVID in early 2020. Of the over 1500 people involved in the study, 2.5% of the participants became reinfected with COVID-19 within the following year.
This number may not seem significant, but 2.5% of the general population becoming reinfected gives the virus a high likelihood of mutating. Each mutation, called a variant, will be more likely to infect and reinfect the population – including recovered and vaccinated people.
With more COVID variants, the chance of reinfection by a different variant increases. You are more likely to be infected by a variant than you are to be infected by the same virus.
The immune system has only learned to defeat one COVID variant and will be shocked by new variants when reinfected. With the rapid mutations of this deadly virus, it is not yet known what the potential is in the future in terms of fatalities.
How Many COVID Variants Are There Now?
According to some researchers, there are over a dozen SARS-CoV-2 variants in the world at this point. Many variants will remain localized and eventually die out. Others will be incredibly successful in infecting and reproducing in people (and even animals).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorizes all COVID-19 virus variants based on the danger they present to people. The current categories include:
- Variants being monitored (VBM)
- Variants of interest (VOI)
- Variants of concern (VOC)
- Variants of high consequence (VOHC)
There are currently several COVID variants in the category of variants being monitored. These variants are not considered highly contagious, nor do they present a significant threat to human health.
Variants of concern are a more significant threat to people. They are considered very contagious and can create severe health problems in those they infect.
You have most likely heard about the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19. These are currently listed as variants of concern because they are easily transmissible and have the potential to cause severe illness and even death.
How Deadly Is COVID?
Some people equate COVID-19 to the flu and other common seasonal viruses. While COVID cases seem to peak during the winter months, COVID is not the same as the seasonal flu. The consequences of underestimating COVID can be deadly.
COVID is so deadly that the WHO estimates the fatality rate as one in five people. In a study published in the British Medical Journal, COVID-19 was shown to cause death at rates five times that of the flu. Over 6 million people worldwide have died from COVID and its variants.
The United States is a truly staggering statistic: almost one million people have died in the United States alone from coronavirus.
Death is more likely in older people and those with preexisting conditions such as diabetes and autoimmune disorders. However, several conditions make a COVID fatality more likely, including:
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic respiratory disease
Death by COVID-19 is possible for anyone, however. Many seemingly healthy young people and children have also died due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What makes COVID-19 similar to the flu is its ability to mutate rapidly. The influenza virus changes almost every year. This continuing evolution of viral strains is why we are encouraged to get a new flu shot every year to protect us against the new strain.
If COVID is allowed to change as rapidly as the flu, we will likely be receiving shots for both COVID and the flu every winter.
The Facts About Masks
Since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, masks have been a serious concern and debate for some people. Here, we’ll dive into the facts about face masks and how they can protect you and those around you, even after recovery from COVID-19.
Why Masks Work
Research has proven that COVID-19 and its variants are most commonly spread through respiratory droplets. Respiratory droplets are drops of liquid expelled from the lungs, nose, and mouth. Respiratory droplets are released every time you speak, exhale, cough, or sneeze.
COVID-19 virus particles are so small that they can easily travel in tiny respiratory droplets. Did you know that these droplets can be projected as far as 200 feet (61 meters) away?
This fact means that every time we speak, breathe, cough, and sneeze, we could potentially be infecting anyone within 200 feet (61 meters) of us. With that being said, most droplets only travel up to ten feet (three meters) away, but this distance is still significant.
When masks are worn correctly, they cover the wearer’s nose, mouth, and chin completely.
This barrier stops up to 95% of respiratory droplets from entering the air, depending on the fit and quality of the mask. Even the droplets that pass through the mask are significantly slowed.
The Best Kinds of Masks
Although some face masks are better than no face mask, there are differences in the effectiveness of mask types. Here, we’ll dissect some common face mask types and their significance in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
N95 face masks are currently understood to be the best masks available. They filter up to 95% of respiratory particles when worn correctly. The chance of infecting another person with COVID-19 while wearing an N95 mask is very low.
At the same time, these masks protect the wearer from breathing in the respiratory particles of others. Although they are the most effective, the CDC recommends leaving these masks for healthcare professionals, first responders, and the severely immunocompromised.
Disposable Surgical Masks
Disposable masks are convenient for single use and on the go. They are generally affordable and can be easily purchased in bulk boxes. Healthcare professionals typically use these masks for minor surgeries and outpatient procedures.
Disposable masks may offer different levels of protection, depending on their fit. Surgical masks with ties are more effective, at around 71.5% protection. Surgical masks with ear loops do not always fit correctly and are only about 38% effective.
Cotton Fabric Masks
Fabric masks were one of the first little homemade inventions spawned during the COVID pandemic. Along with making sourdough bread, many people passed the time sewing cute face masks for family and friends in lockdown.
Unfortunately, cotton masks are generally not very effective. A two-layer cotton mask is not as effective as a three-layer mask. Three-layer cotton masks are still only rated at about 26.5% effective for blocking viral particles.
Although they are not the most effective, a cotton mask is better than no mask! If a cotton mask is all you have, please continue to wear it in public places.
Nylon Fabric Masks
On the other hand, Nylon masks are surprisingly effective at blocking respiratory droplets and viral particles. A two-layer nylon mask with a filter and adjustable nose bridge blocks approximately 79% of particles.
For any kind of mask, what matters most is fit. The mask should be worn tightly over the nose, mouth, and chin. There should be no gaps at the sides of the nose or cheeks where exhaled air might escape.
Some people have worn a rubber band or nylon hosiery over the mask for a closer fit. Wearing a properly fitted mask may boost effectiveness by up to 80%.
Masks Protect Us All
To summarize, masks are still an essential tool in the fight against COVID. Wearing a mask is a minor inconvenience compared to hospitalization, long COVID, or death. When combined with vaccinations, masks play a crucial role in slowing the spread of coronavirus.
Recovered COVID Patients
Even people who have been infected with COVID should wear masks. Masks protect these individuals from reinfection by variants. By slowing the spread between people, they also slow the virus’ ability to mutate and become resistant to vaccines.
For the same reasons as recovered COVID patients, the vaccinated still need to wear masks in public too. If COVID is allowed to spread quickly between people – immune or not – it will quickly learn and mutate to infect broader populations.
To keep vaccines effective, we have to reduce the spread of the virus. Booster shots are already being introduced to combat new strains, but masks can help us prevent boosters from becoming necessary year after year.
For people who choose to remain unvaccinated, masks are crucial. Unvaccinated people are more likely to contract and spread the disease, possibly without knowing they are infected.
If you choose to remain unvaccinated, wearing a mask is the least you can do to help your community and healthcare workers. It demonstrates that you care about protecting others from severe illness and death.
Wearing a mask also protects unvaccinated people from catching COVID. Unvaccinated people are much more likely to develop severe complications due to COVID.
Even if you fully accept the possibility of catching COVID naturally, others around you have not consented to viral exposure. Wearing a mask protects vulnerable people who still need to access important public places.
For many people, vaccination isn’t a safe option yet. Some children are still too young to receive a vaccine. Other people are afraid of potential side effects or complications from other health conditions.
Even for vulnerable populations vaccinated against COVID, contracting the illness can be dangerous and potentially deadly. These people should wear masks to protect themselves. N95 masks are the best choice for older individuals and the immunocompromised.
The decision to wear a mask is up to you, but masks are the simplest and most effective tool we can use to protect ourselves and others from severe illness. They may feel like a minor inconvenience to ourselves, but they show our care and support for others.
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- BBC News: Coronavirus: How Long Does it Take to Recover?
- Kaiser Permanente Thrive: Long-Term COVID-19 Symptoms: What You Need to Know
- Oxford Academic: Reinfection With Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 Among Previously Infected Healthcare Personnel and First Responders
- The British Medical Journal: Comparative evaluation of clinical manifestations and risk of death in patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 and seasonal influenza: a cohort study
- Statistica: Number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, recoveries, and deaths worldwide as of April 11, 2022
- Medical New Today: How deadly is COVID-19? What the research says
- USA Facts: US COVID-19 Cases and Deaths by State
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: SARS-CoV-2 Variant Classifications and Definitions