Uncertainty Regarding Recovery from COVID-19 Calls for Caution in Reporting

For Immediate Release:

APRIL 22, 2020
9:30 a.m.


Smithfield, N.C. – Johnston County Public Health Department officials continue to closely monitor the spread of COVID-19 in the county, reporting each day on the number and demographic profile of cases, as well as fatalities. The growth of new cases has led some to inquire about the number of those who have recovered from the illness. Unfortunately, widely varying experiences with how the virus runs its course in patients mean that tallying the number of those appearing to have beaten COVID-19 isn’t so simple

“The knowledge of COVID-19 continues to develop and as such there is an amount of uncertainty regarding the length of time, as well as being asymptomatic that must pass before a patient is considered to be ‘recovered’,” says Johnston County Health Director Marilyn Pearson. “Based on this uncertainty, we believe it is prudent to not use the term ‘recovered’ but instead report on those who ‘meet the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) criteria for discontinuing isolation’.” Dr. Pearson, who leads a staff of nearly 140, says that as the definition becomes clearer, the number of “recovered” cases may be included in the statistical data reported by county health officials.

Johnston County’s approach to the issue aligns with guidance from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. “’Recovered’ is not a report we have at this time,” says Chris Mackey, director of communications at DHHS. “As we continue to build out our publicly reported database, this may be something we add.”

Globally, there have been reports of patients who have shown symptoms, tested positive for COVID-19, seemingly recovered and tested negative, but later tested positive again after symptoms returned. This is leading medical researchers to consider the possibility of reinfection. In South Korea, for example, more than 160 patients have tested positive a second time for the coronavirus, according to an April 18 article in The Wall Street Journal, suggesting COVID-19 may have a longer shelf life than expected. Other countries have similarly reported cases of recovered patients testing positive again, and the World Health Organization (WHO) recently acknowledged that not all recovered patients appear to possess antibodies needed to avoid a second infection, the Journal reported.

“There is still so much the world is learning about this disease and how to treat it,” Dr. Pearson says. “As the CDC and DHHS work to issue reliable guidance on what constitutes recovery from COVID-19, it’s best to be cautious in describing the status of patients who appear to be regaining their health.”

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