Could I still be contagious after COVID isolation? And should I bother wearing a mask once I get better?

If you’re at home with COVID, you might be wondering how long you’re really contagious. You don’t want to self-isolate any longer than necessary, but neither do you want to endanger the health of your friends and co-workers — or vulnerable strangers for that matter.

In Australia, people with COVID are necessary to isolate for seven days, unless they have significant ongoing or new symptoms (then the fine print of state and territory rules say they should stay away longer).

So what is the risk of leaving home after a week and still being contagious?

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What does the research say about Omicron’s infectious period?

The incubation period of Omicron – the period between infection and the onset of symptoms – is about three days, with the person often becoming contagious a day or two before symptoms appear.

The average duration of symptoms with Omicron is also quite short – often 5-6 days versus 7-10 days with Delta and earlier variants. Omicron is more contagious because the increased number of mutations on its spike protein allows it to better evade the body’s immune system.

It appears that the Omicron variant causes milder disease and more asymptomatic infections, and it’s better at dodging our immune systems – hence the high breakthrough rate with the Omicron variant is to be expected.

What if my RAT test is still positive on day 6 or 7?

Omicron outbreak data suggests rapid antigen tests (RATs) may not detect COVID until at least two days later virus exposure.

And the Administration of Therapeutic Goods (TGA) says RATs aren’t as accurate if you don’t have symptoms. So it’s you probably won’t test positive on a RAT up to a few days after exposure. And, if you don’t have symptoms, you could get a false negative result within days.

PCR tests are likely to detect virus sooner than RATs due to their high sensitivity, and PCR will also continue to detect virus particles for longer. Relying on this test could extend the period of isolation even if the person is not contagious. That said, a PCR test is still considered the “gold standard” for detecting SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Most states do not require a clear RAT or PCR test for release from isolation, but say those who still some symptoms (such as sore throat, cough, shortness of breath or runny nose) should prolong their isolation. If you have symptoms and take a RAT test, a positive result may indicate that you are still infectious to others.

The goal of COVID testing is to identify people who are currently transmitting the virus. Thus, RATs are able to detect the vast majority of infectious cases and they work well in congregate settings, such as long-term care facilities, workplaces, or schools.

A positive RAT can be a sign of contagiousness.

Meanwhile, emerging science (including data from the [National Basketball Association’s extensive COVID testing program] suggests that with the Omicron variant, up to half of those infected could still be contagious on the fifth day (the end of the recommended period isolation period in the United States) – and perhaps beyond.

In Australian states and territories, isolation lasts seven daysprovided the person has no symptoms.

He has been suggested it might be safer to self-isolate for eight days and wear a mask to protect others for a total of ten days. In the Northern Territory, those coming out of isolation must wear a mask for seven additional days. South Australians are told to mask up to three days after isolation.

And the masks after that?

Thus, it is possible that people are contagious beyond their seven-day isolation if they are still showing symptoms. After ten days, most people are no longer contagious. Several studies have shown that there is very little, if any, transmission after the tenth daywhatever the variant.

However, for those who are immunocompromised, waiting 20 days Coming out of isolation is recommended as these patients have been shown to tend to shed virus for longer.

woman walking with a red umbrella

Once recovered, you probably won’t need to wear a mask for a while.
Image AAP/Bianca De Marchi

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Once people are completely cured of the disease and have no symptomsthey are considered non-infectious because the viral load they carry is very low.

A person who has recently fully recovered from COVID does not need to wear a mask, as they are not at risk of being reinfected with the same variant. As a result, they pose no COVID threat to others.

However, they will have to reconsider this advice after 12 weekswhen reinfection is possible.

The level of protection you have against vaccination or previous COVID infection may also depend on factors such as your age and immune status. It’s also worth noting that Omicron recovery won’t protect someone against seasonal colds and flu or later COVID variants — but a mask might.

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Takeaway tips on when to leave the house

Protecting yourself and the community against communicable diseases, including COVID, relies on early detection of infection and the implementation of public infection prevention measures.

Until the RAT tests are uniformly sensitive enough to detect with certainty the absence of the virus, we must supplement these tests with preventive measures such as isolation until the symptoms disappear and the wearing of masks in the indoor areas and at public events.

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