Coronavirus Immunity: Does It Actually Last for 3 Months?

There’s been a recent flurry of headlines about new coronavirus immunity thanks to updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that sparked a lot of confusion. On August 3, the CDC updated their quarantine guidance to say that people who test positive for COVID-19 do not need to get retested within three months if they don’t develop new signs of the illness such as coughing, loss of smell or taste, headache, and fever.

“People who have tested positive for COVID-19 do not need to quarantine or get tested again for up to three months as long as they do not develop symptoms again. People who develop symptoms again within three months of their first bout of COVID-19 may need to be tested again if there is no other cause identified for their symptoms,” the CDC website reads.

Confusion over what this new guidance means in terms of COVID-19 immunity is rampant. Some online commenters and media outlets mistakenly took the CDC’s update as a confirmation that people with COVID-19 are immune from reinfection for up to three months.

Then a backlash formed, particularly among the epidemiological community on Twitter. Many experts said various news outlets were misinterpreting the update. Instead, the general scientific consensus is that coronavirus immunity lasts at least three months, not a minimum of three months, experts such as Carl Bergstrom, Ph.D., a professor of biology at the University of Washington and coauthor of the forthcoming book Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World, said on Twitter. In fact, the New York Times reports that the latest research hints that people retain “strong, lasting immunity” even after mild illness with COVID-19. That research is still in its early days and doesn’t specify how long, exactly, this immunity seems to last, but many experts do find it encouraging, according to the Times.

That would be welcome news—we haven’t had any definitive insights on new coronavirus immunity since the pandemic began. But actually, the CDC quickly responded with a clarifying statement: The new guidelines, they said, weren’t referring to immunity at all.

“Contrary to media reporting today, this science does not imply a person is immune to reinfection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the three months following infection,” the CDC wrote in a media release. They further clarified in a note at the top of their quarantine page, explaining that a person who has the coronavirus can continue to test positive for up to three months after their initial illness even when they aren’t infectious anymore. According to the CDC, science has shown that very low levels of the virus can stick around in people’s systems for up to three months, hence their recommendation not to get tested again in that timeframe unless new COVID-19 symptoms develop. If you recover from COVID-19 but develop symptoms again within three months, get evaluated for reinfection and otherwise isolate yourself, the CDC says.

Ultimately, for now, we don’t have answers regarding how long new coronavirus immunity lasts. “At this time, we do not know if someone can be re-infected with COVID-19,” the CDC says.

But what do we know about reinfection so far?

“The evidence suggests people are not getting reinfected in the short term,” Eleanor Murray, Sc.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, tells SELF. But, she says, “just because something on average isn’t happening doesn’t mean that it can’t ever happen.”

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