As we progress through the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, we hear authorities use words that seem similar but have very different clinical meanings and implications. Isolation and quarantine are public health practices used to protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have or may have a contagious disease.
The key to slowing the coronavirus pandemic is preventing the spread and reducing transmission. People who suspect that they have been exposed to the virus, have known exposure, or have symptoms, should practice isolation or quarantine. What do these terms mean, and which should you follow?
What is Isolation?
Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who aren’t sick. The duration of the coronavirus can vary from person to person, so the decision of when to release someone from isolation is made on a case-by-case basis using these requirements:
- The patient is free of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications.
- The patient is no longer showing symptoms, including cough.
- The patient has tested negative on at least two consecutive respiratory specimens collected at least 24 hours apart.
Isolation is a term that refers to keeping those infected with a contagious illness away from those who are not infected.
What is Quarantine?
Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who may have been exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. The quarantine period for COVID-19 is typically 14 days, the longest-known incubation period for similar coronaviruses.
What’s the Difference Between Quarantine and Isolation?
Isolation serves the same purpose as quarantine, but is specifically for those who are sick. Isolation keeps infected people separated from healthy people in order to prevent illness from spreading.
What is Self-Quarantine?
If you believe you have or may have, been in contact with the COVID-19 virus, you should self-quarantine for 14 days from your last potential exposure.
Here are some basic guidelines to help better understand what self-quarantine means:
- Stay home or another location away from other people, if possible. At home, it’s best to stay to yourself and interact with as few people as possible.
- Take your temperature twice each day; be aware of a cough or difficulty breathing.
- Stay home from school or work. Discuss your work situation with your employer before returning to work.
- Avoid public transportation, taxis, or ride-shares.
- Avoid crowded places (such as shopping centers and movie theaters) and limit activities outside your home.
- Keep your distance from others, six feet or more.
- If you notice a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, contact your local health department or physician immediately.
- If you need to obtain other medical care, such as dialysis, call ahead to your doctor and tell them about your possible exposure to COVID-19.
What is Social Distancing?
Social distancing also called “physical distancing,” means keeping space between yourself and other people outside of your home. To practice social or physical distancing:
- Stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from other people
- Do not gather in groups
- Stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings
Don’t let the fear of exposure prevent you from getting the care you need.
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U.S. Department of Health & Human Services