When do you become contagious with COVID, and for how long? Your questions, answered

·4 min read

We’ve been collecting reader questions about the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as other topics related to the pandemic in Kansas City. Here are some answers to those questions that we hope will be helpful for the community at large. We edited the questions slightly for clarity.

Do you have a question of your own? Let The Star’s service journalism team look into it for you. Email us anytime at kcq@kcstar.com, or fill out the form at the end of this article.

Reader Eileen asked: If I am exposed to someone who has COVID-19, can I transmit the virus to someone else the next day? Or, since it takes the virus time to build up in my body, how long will it take for me to be able to infect someone else?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Anyone infected with COVID-19 can spread it, even if they do NOT have symptoms.” If you’re concerned about spreading COVID to other people, the best course of action is to quarantine yourself as soon as you are exposed.

The Associated Press has reported that people exposed to the omicron variant may become contagious “within a day after infection.” That’s a shorter window than with previous variants, which took two to four days to become contagious.

The CDC states that COVID-19 patients are most contagious roughly two days before and three days after the onset of symptoms. Since you can begin developing symptoms of the omicron variant as soon as two days after contact, you may be contagious as soon as you are exposed.

Some guidance is more lenient: if you have had COVID-19 in the last 90 days or are fully vaccinated, including a booster shot, current CDC guidelines don’t recommend quarantining yourself unless you develop symptoms. Ultimately, the choice to quarantine is up to you.

Reader Julie asked: How long after exposure do symptoms take to appear with omicron compared to other variants? And, if you have possibly been exposed, how long should you quarantine?

According to Harvard Medical School, “The time from exposure to symptom onset (known as the incubation period) is thought to be two to 14 days. Symptoms typically appeared within five days for early variants, and within four days for the Delta variant. The incubation period appears to be even shorter – about three days – for the Omicron variant.”

If you have been exposed to COVID-19, current CDC guidelines recommend taking precautions for the next ten days.

  • If you are fully vaccinated, including a booster shot, this means wearing a mask for ten days and isolating yourself if you develop symptoms.

  • If you are not fully vaccinated, this means isolating for five days and then getting a COVID-19 test if possible. If you test negative and have no symptoms, wear a mask for five more days.

  • If you test positive or develop symptoms during this ten-day period, start your count over and isolate for at least five days. Here’s what to do if you test positive for COVID-19.

Reader Zach asked: How does getting the vaccine “help protect others” if you can still spread the virus?

Getting vaccinated reduces the number of COVID-19 infections in the population overall, making it more difficult for the virus to spread.

Vaccinated people can spread the virus to others, although an October 2021 study on the Delta variant found that their rate of doing so is lower than unvaccinated people. Vaccinated people are also less likely to see severe outcomes, including hospitalization and death, that can overwhelm a healthcare system currently struggling to treat patients.

The best protection against infecting others is a multi-layered approach that includes frequent handwashing, wearing a well-fitting mask and maintaining physical distance from other people, especially indoors. Isolating yourself from others if you do get exposed or infected is also key.

Here’s where to get vaccinated for free in the Kansas City area.

Reader Pam asked: How long should you wait after a COVID-19 infection to get vaccinated? Does it matter whether it was omicron or another variant?

CDC guidelines on self-isolation group those who have recovered from COVID-19 in the last 90 days together with fully vaccinated people who have received a booster shot. This grouping of guidance suggests that COVID-19 infection provides some natural immunity for 90 days after your illness.

However, it is not yet known how well an illness from one COVID-19 variant protects against future illness from other variants, if at all. For that reason, experts recommend getting vaccinated as soon as you recover from COVID-19 and exit isolation, no matter which variant you had.

Do you have more questions about staying safe during the pandemic in Kansas City? Ask our Service Journalism team at kcq@kcstar.com or fill out the form below.

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