Understanding Quarantine vs. Self Isolation

Quarantine vs. Self-Isolation: An Infectious-Disease Expert Explains the Difference
by Popsugar.com

Depending on where you live right now, you most likely have some sort of guidance in place to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. In fact, according to The New York Times, at least 200 million Americans, due to state and local laws, are being asked to stay home, whether that's a shelter in place,where nonessential businesses are closed, or something less severe but still focused on the idea of social distancing to flatten the curve.

You've also heard terms like "quarantine" and "self-isolation," but what do these phrases actually mean in the context of the coronavirus? We spoke with Maria Khan, MPH, an associate professor in New York University's Department of Population Health, who has a PhD in infectious disease epidemiology. She broke down the difference.

Quarantine vs. Self-Isolation

Isolation, according to Dr. Khan, is used to separate individuals who are sick from individuals who are not. In this case, it would be people who have symptoms or who have tested positive for COVID-19. "We are trying to restrict movement of those individuals so that they don't spread it to outside of their household, and then even within their household," she explained. Ideally, an ill person would have their own room and bathroom space, and trays of food and other essentials would be left at the door, Dr. Khan specified.

Most cases of COVID-19, according to the CDC, are manageable at home. If you're living with others and showing symptoms, it's advised to avoid sharing household and personal items. The CDC has guidelines for discontinuing home isolation. For instance, you're considered no longer contagious if you get two negative test results in a row, 24 hours apart — though testing, as of now, might be difficult to come by depending on what your healthcare provider dictates to you. 

If it's not feasible for you to get testing done, you can discontinue home isolation after a certain point in time. Per the CDC, all of the following needs to apply: you've had no fever for at least three full days, your other symptoms like cough or shortness of breath have improved, and it's been at least seven days since your symptoms first appeared. Plus, here are the CDC's guidelines for caring for someone who is sick.

Quarantine, on the other hand, happens when you're waiting to see if you get sick. "It's used to separate and restrict the movement of individuals who are well, but who may have been exposed to disease," Dr. Khan said. "They might not know their level of risk, but they're well." The incubation period for COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), could be up to 14 days but, on average, is about five. That's why we have a suggested 14-day period of quarantine for anyone who may have been exposed, Dr. Khan said. And the CDC states that anyone "who has been released from COVID-19 quarantine is not considered a risk for spreading the virus to others because they have not developed illness during the incubation period."

Dr. Khan used an example from Westchester, NY. There was a professor who tested positive for COVID-19, so students who were exposed to or could have been exposed to that professor were told to implement self-quarantine. They may not get the virus, but because they were exposed, they had a greater risk of getting it and transferring it (maybe to a more vulnerable person like an older adult or someone who has an underlying health condition). Also, states that have shelter-in-place orders, Dr. Khan explained, are "under quarantine so to speak"; however, there's no time limit on those orders as of now.

Both self-isolation and quarantine are used "to protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have, or may have, a contagious disease," states the US Department of Health and Human Services. So, regardless of if you are under quarantine or in isolation, you should be careful during this time and practice caution around others. It's all about stopping the spread of the virus. You can find out more regarding quarantine and self-isolation on the CDC website, and read up further on some home quarantine tips.

Bottom Line: Be Smart, Stay Home, Keep Yourself Informed

Comply to state, county, or city rules — whichever applies to you, since some states have stay-at-home orders and, as of now, some counties or cities have issued guidelineswhile their overall states have not. Practice social distancing as much as you can, though there are exceptions in places where people working for essential businesses have to leave their houses regularly. It differs depending on where you live, but, for the most part, grocery stores, healthcare services, and waste management are examples of essential business that have stayed open. First responders and law enforcement workers continue going to work as well. Some restaurants, too, are keeping their kitchens running for takeout and pickup orders only. On the other hand, nonessential businesses such as malls, gyms, and movie theaters are closed.

Dr. Khan wanted to note an important fact: we now know that there have been cases where people show very minor symptoms (or no symptoms). Yes, generally, the main indicators of the coronavirus are cough, shortness of breath, and fever, along with tiredness and aches, but there are cases where other signs arise or none at all. "We know that many people have the infection, and they won't be symptomatic, and they could be transmitting the virus," she said, using her own living situation as an example to stay cautious.

Dr. Khan lives in New Rochelle, NY, which was a "hot zone" of the coronavirus from the beginning. She developed a sore throat that didn't seem consistent with COVID-19 symptoms at that point. But she said she started taking precautions because of the potential for COVID-19. She advised, "If you have any symptoms, given this epidemic, you want to be super conservative and stay at home." Staying at home, especially now, is the new reality for most of the country anyway; however, what she's saying is to use discretion and common sense.

POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID-19, please check out resources from the WHOCDC, and local public health departments.

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