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How long are Covid survivors protected from getting sick again?

Reinfections are rare and doctors say it’s because the body produces antibodies that remember the virus that causes COVID-19 while mounting a defense to keep it from causing illness again. But how long do those antibodies last?

There is little research, some trials say six months, others only 90 days. 

So the Medical Watch team did their own unscientific study at WGN.

Reporters, photographers and producers worked throughout the pandemic and WGN saw a handful of COVID-19 infections. The Med Watch team gathered survivors who range in age from their 30s to nearly 60.

Producer Danielle Johnston was diagnosed in early October. She was sick and scared and felt as if she couldn’t breathe.

“It was miserable,” she said.

But once recovered, she was breathing a sigh of relief.

“It is freeing saying, ‘Okay, well I had Covid,'” she said. “I am obviously going to wear my mask. I am going to wash my hands. I’m going to do all the things we’re supposed to do.’ But I am not as stressed about it in the back of my mind.”

Like many Covid survivors, including Danielle’s husband Keenan Johnston, they think they are protected. 

“You go through it so you want the silver lining,” he said. “I was not as concerned for my own well-being (and) much more comfortable going out.”

Dr. Rahul Kare works at Innovative Express Care in Chicago.

“Once you’ve had COVID-19, the likelihood of you getting it again is very low,” he said. “If you have antibodies that means that you’ve had some contact with COVID-19.”

The antibodies are in the blood.

One by one, the group of Covid survivors at WGN rolled up their sleeves to have their blood drawn.

Their symptoms ranged from very mild to difficult but no one was hospitalized.

Reporter Mike Lowe was most recently infected in February.

“My case was relatively mild,” he said. “I did not have any of the respiratory symptoms, just had a sore throat and some body aches and fatigue.”

He felt certain he would have antibodies.

“All of them had one type of antibody that was abnormally high either the IgG or the IgM,” Khare said.

The antibody test looks for both IgM and IgG. Even though the body releases millions of antibodies, these are specific to Covid’s spike protein.

“Usually IgM comes first,” Khare said. “Sometimes it’s too weak sometimes it’s a month prior to IgG. IgG comes later but it is longer lasting.”

Each person tested had some level of antibodies.

Photographer Ted Parra’s were through the roof, even though he had a very mild infection.

“These don’t always correlate with how mild or severe, asymptomatic,” Khare said.”This is exactly what we would predict to see in someone who had a November infection, that they have IgG antibodies with them, which is a good thing and protective. … That means if someone were to sneeze on him or they got Covid, the antibodies in the memory cells would isolate that (and) would take that virus out. And the hope is that it wouldn’t grow enough to go back into their mucous membranes and cause them to be infectious.”

The results of the WGN informal study can bring comfort to former Covid patients and are no surprise to doctors following the science.

With infections ranging from September to February, everyone has some measure of protection.

“If you have positive antibodies you are protected!” Khare said. “The truth is so far if you had COVID-19 even a year ago when this all started, you are most likely protected.”

Having Covid provides the best antibodies, but the vaccine will as well. The only concern is the variants. In six months those mutations may elude current vaccines and natural antibodies.

 So be prepared for the possibility of the need for another shot next year.