When Catherine Zito, who lives in Chelsea and works in finance, tested positive for having coronavirus antibodies on May 4, she texted at least 15 friends.
“I’ve never been so happy for a positive test in my life,” she said. “Usually you want these tests to be negative.”
Since March, Ms. Zito, 53, had spent most of the pandemic at home. But she did visit the supermarket and go to physical therapy, using an Uber for transportation.
“There was also this day in early March, when I was shoulder to shoulder with people on a No. 6 train,” she said. She never experienced symptoms of Covid-19, but she hoped these actions were enough to get some exposure and perhaps, if science one day proves it, immunity.
“Everyone was jealous of my results,” she said. “A few people called me Wonder Woman or Superwoman.
“A colleague who I was working with in an office tested negative for them. I could tell he was angry.”
New Yorkers are still in the early days of antibody testing. Doctors and scientists know that possessing antibodies means patients have had some exposure to the virus. But they aren’t sure yet what that means. Could those with antibodies get Covid-19 again? Could they still pass the virus to someone else? It’s also unclear whether antibodies will play any role in determining who can go back to work or socialize or travel
Ms. Zito, for one, is playing golf again, discussing returning to work with her colleagues, has trips to France and Switzerland planned, and is visiting her 80-year-old mother in New Jersey again. “That has been very nice for both of us,” she said.
“In general, a positive antibody test is presumed to mean a person has been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, at some point in the past,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. “We currently don’t have enough information yet to say whether someone will definitely be immune and protected from reinfection if they have antibodies to the virus.”
Still, many people across the city are deriving great meaning from their test results and projecting hopes and fears onto them.
Some with positive antibody results, like Ms. Zito, feel triumphant they came into contact with the virus and it didn’t cripple them. Others feel less anxious, knowing their body already fought the illness to some extent.
Those who test negative see it as validation that their social distancing measures are working, and they should stay the course.
Judith Kafka, a professor who lives in Brooklyn, certainly saw an upside to testing negative for antibodies. Her husband had Covid-19, but the family was quick to isolate him. “We were really, really careful after he was sick, so I guess this means we did a good job,” said Ms. Kafka, 46.
She and her husband’s test results have been the subject of conversation among friends and family members outside of New York. “In the rest of the country, they are a lot more removed,” she said. “Knowing someone who got sick and knowing somebody with antibodies is a big deal. There is a lot of curiosity, and they all want to know how it works.”
One way the antibody test “works” for New Yorkers is that it can help solve the mystery of whether they were exposed to the virus to begin with. Many people who got sick in the early days of the pandemic did not have access to virus tests, like the family of Lauren McFarland, a ceramic artist in Brooklyn.
“We were all sick in March except my 12-year-old,” said Ms. McFarland, 48, who has three sons, 12, 11, and 8. “We also had a group of friends who got sick at the same time. We all looked up the symptoms and talked about them nonstop,” she said. But the tests were not available. “There was this ongoing conversation about whether we had it.”
Now they have some clarity: the entire family and most of the friend group tested positive for antibodies. “I would hate to never actually know,” she said. “It’s one fact we can count on in this whole thing.”
She hopes having antibodies will help her family out in the future. “What if there is a stamp in our passport, or we are a different color on an app, or it means the boys can go to sleepaway camp?” she said. “My friends and I joke that the positives can hang out with the positives.”
The World Health Organization has suggested that such a practice would be far in the future. A science brief published in April by the organization stated that even though there has been some discussion that antibodies “could serve as the basis for an ‘immunity passport’ or ‘risk-free certificate’ that would enable individuals to travel or to return to work assuming that they are protected against re-infection,” there was no evidence that antibodies can protect someone from getting infected again.
For this reason, Marsheen Truesdale, 40, who drives along the 14th Street bus line for the M.T.A., remains wary, even though he has tested positive for antibodies. “I use precautions, but in my head, I have built up anxiety,” he said. “It’s constant questioning, questioning, questioning.” That said, he admitted to being much more relaxed since getting his test results.
He has tried to persuade some of his colleagues to take the test. “I don’t think a lot of them even understand the concept of what antibodies are,” he said. “They want to know if they should keep me at a distance.”
Samantha Netkin, 27, is an editor whose fiancé, a medical resident, tested positive for antibodies. She didn’t. “We are all just confused,” she said. “I hope that the antibodies are protective, and it seems they are in the short term, but time will tell.”
Jazz Ross, a TV producer who lives in Ridgewood, Queens, said that she doesn’t care if she has antibodies. Ms. Ross, 30, was hospitalized for nine days in March for the coronavirus.
As she put it: “It won’t change my anxiety until someone tells me that those with antibodies will be immune to Covid-19 forever.”