After announcing he’d contracted the novel coronavirus last week, U.S. President Donald Trump has been photographed back at the White House, waving to supporters from inside a motorcade, and vowing to get back on the campaign trail.
The Republican president has gone so far as to say that he was “feeling great!” in a recent White House memorandum following an early discharge from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland on Monday, and urging Americans not to let the virus “dominate your life.”
Trump has claimed, by all appearances, that he is no longer exhibiting symptoms — that he’s beaten the virus. But how long does it take to fully recover from the virus?
Winnipeg-based epidemiologist Cynthia Carr noted the difference between a “clinical cure,” which is when a person no longer exhibits COVID-19 symptoms and a “pathogen cure,” which is when a person no longer tests positive for the virus.
“(Trump) might be feeling better and something like steroids definitely would help with breathing, but that doesn’t mean virus left the body and it doesn’t mean the steroids — for example — will continue to work as you usually ‘step down’ very carefully off a steroid dose,” Carr said.
It is not yet confirmed exactly when the U.S. president contracted the virus, but both Donald and Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19 after attending an event meant to officially introduce his latest pick for U.S. Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett on Sept. 28. Since then, dozens of GOP members have also been diagnosed with the virus.
The World Health Organization estimates an average of two weeks in recovery time, based on a February analysis of data from a joint mission with China — although certain symptoms, like coughing, may linger.
Zahid Butt, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Waterloo, said the road to recovery depends entirely on the person.
A person experiencing mild symptoms should on average take two weeks, he said, but patients who are already immune-compromised or have underlying health conditions could take from three to six weeks or longer, often requiring hospitalization.
“If your age is more than 65 years, if you are male, if you have underlying health conditions such as heart disease or diabetes, you may take longer to recover than persons who don’t have these conditions,” he said.
COVID-19’s effect on the body
The novel coronavirus is a respiratory illness that restricts breathing and can reduce lung capacity through inflammation, Butt said. But the virus doesn’t just stop there. In more severe cases, patients have reported losing taste, sense of smell, kidney failure, brain fog and a whole other host of medical problems.
“In really severe cases, it can cause inflammation in your body and … systemic failure where the body goes into shock. That can happen with the body as well,” Butt said.
If a person is going to show symptoms, Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease specialist at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, said it takes about five days from initial exposure for symptoms to begin to show.
“This virus, more so than most respiratory viruses, has certainly demonstrated a panoply of different organ effects,” he said.
“We know for sure that, in fact, most people who get this infection have detectable inflammation and potential damage to their heart muscle, the long term consequences of which we simply don’t know yet.”
When a patient first falls ill, Oughton said the virus replicates in the body. But in many cases, he said there is a “second phase” where it’s no longer the active viral replication causing harm as much as it is the body’s immune and inflammatory response to it.
What causes a person’s condition to worsen or destabilize can actually have more to do with how the body responds to COVID-19 than the virus itself, he said.
“That can sometimes make the person destabilize and become a lot sicker,” he said.
When is a person no longer contagious?
It depends on when a patient first becomes ill.
According to Oughton, “it’s not a perfect rule,” but the general rule is that most people are no longer considered contagious after eight days, as there is no longer enough of the virus in the body to grow the cell culture.
“Even if a patient tests positive after the eight days, they don’t appear to have enough virus that they’re actually at a high risk of infecting others,” he said.
While it was unlikely Trump had made a full recovery, Dr. Nitin Mohan, an assistant professor at Western University, said it was possible for the U.S. president to be at a “manageable” level.
However, he emphasized that Trump had more advantages than the average person would have access to.
“He’s over the age of 70. He has co-morbidities, but he also has access to the best health care in the world,” said Mohan.
He called Trump’s downplaying of his own diagnosis “dangerous on many levels,” adding that “no one should be mimicking his behaviour.”
“For a general population, they would not have access to what he has. This is not a disease or a virus that you want to get. And it’s not one that you want to take lightly if you do get it,” he said.