As coronavirus case counts continue to rise, so does the number of people who've recovered from the illness.
However, patients who recover from COVID-19 may not be in the clear immediately. Side effects can linger, and medical experts have expressed concern about long-term damage, especially to the lungs and heart.
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There are also concerns about reinfection, which means that people who've had the illness should still be wearing masks, social distancing and following other safety guidelines, like frequent hand-washing and avoiding touching their face. While patients are likely to be immune for at least some time after recovering, experts say they worry about the possibility of reinfection.
Dr. Patrick Kachur, a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, pointed out that there have only been a small number of documented cases of people being infected with COVID-19 a second time. "We don't yet know enough about how infectious they might be," he told TODAY. "It does seem that having a genetically distinct strain of infection the second time has been a factor in some of the reported cases."
Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, said that some cases have indicated that people who get the illness a second time might be less affected by it, but it's hard to be certain without much data.
"I think right now a lot (of our information) is just anecdotal," said Kraft. "We don't know, but we think that when you get reinfected you probably have a much less severe illness because your immune system already has fought it off once."
Both Kachur and Kraft said that it would be important to continue to wear masks, especially with the virus surging across the country. Beyond the possibility of reinfection with COVID-19, wearing a mask will also help you continue to protect those around you from other viruses.
"There's more than just COVID that people can give each other," Kraft said. "You may be carrying something other than COVID, so it's a good idea to just try to minimize the transmission of respiratory viruses this year."
Kraft also emphasized the importance of acting out of solidarity and respect for one another. "We want to just be watching our bodily fluids, right?" she said. "These droplets transmit lots of different things, so in general just wearing a mask for source control is a healthy way to behave, especially right now."
Kachur agreed that continued mask-wearing can help prevent the spread of other viruses, which can be important, especially as doctors try to understand more about the long-term effects COVID-19 can have on the body.
"For people who've survived COVID, particularly if they're high-risk to begin with, they may have some residual risk for other infections," he said. "Continuing to wear masks for other respiratory infections can be ... a way of protecting ourselves and others."
Finally, Kachur and Kraft both said that wearing a mask even after recovering from the virus can help with public perception, since there's no way to tell from looking at someone whether or not they're immune to the virus.
"It's not like you're going to wear a shirt or a sign that says 'I've already had COVID, it's OK, I don't need a mask,'" Kraft joked.