COVID-19: Understanding Quarantine, Isolation and Social Distancing in a Pandemic

COVID-19: Understanding Quarantine, Isolation and Social Distancing in a Pandemic

Plus, 3 ways to protect yourself without freaking out

With coronavirus (COVID-19) dominating the news cycle, you’re starting to throw around words like “quarantine” with an uneasy casualness. But what do these words really mean for your life?

“Quarantine doesn’t have to be a scary thing,” explains infectious disease specialist Steven Gordon, MD. “And it’s an effective way to protect the public.”

Dr. Gordon explains the ins and outs of quarantine and other common terms connected with disease outbreaks.

What does quarantine mean?

Governments use quarantines to stop the spread of contagious diseases. Quarantines are for people or groups who don’t have symptoms but were exposed to the sickness. A quarantine keeps them away from others so they don’t unknowingly infect anyone. 

Quarantines may be used during: 

  • Outbreaks: When there’s a sudden rise in the number of cases of a disease.
  • Epidemics: Similar to outbreaks, but generally considered larger and more widespread.
  • Pandemics: Larger than epidemics, generally global in nature and affect more people.

What’s the difference between isolation and quarantine?

While isolation serves the same purpose as quarantine, it’s reserved for those who are already sick. It keeps infected people away from healthy people to prevent the sickness from spreading. 

Isolation and quarantine help protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have or may have a contagious disease.

  • Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick.
  • Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.

Can you be legally quarantined?

The federal government can use isolation and quarantine to protect people from contagious diseases. States also have the authority to institute isolations or quarantines. Breaking a quarantine has consequences that range from a fine to imprisonment. 

But government-mandated quarantines are rare. You have to go all the way back to the infamous Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 for the last enforced, large-scale isolation and quarantine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

In response to suspected or confirmed coronavirus exposure, some have been asked to self-quarantine. And while it’s highly recommended that you do, these quarantines are currently voluntary.

“For anyone who has close contact with someone infected with the coronavirus, it is important that you listen to instructions from your health department,” Dr. Gordon says. 

What exactly is “close contact?” It’s defined as being within approximately 6 feet (2 meters) of someone with COVID-19 for a prolonged period of time. That includes if you are living with, visiting or sharing a healthcare waiting area or room with someone with COVID-19. Or if you have been coughed on by someone with the disease.

Health departments identify close contacts through what’s called contact tracing, Dr. Gordon explains. “They will notify you if they think you have been exposed to a known case and provide you with instructions for next steps,” he says. Unsure if you qualify as having been in close contact? Reach out to your local health department.

What happens when you are quarantined?

While not all quarantines are the same, look to the your Ministry of Health for how best to do your part. Currently, recommends: 

  • Make it a staycation: Avoid leaving the house unless absolutely necessary (read: visiting your healthcare provider, though see the next bullet for how to do that). That means no work, school or church and saying no to your cousin’s bat mitzvah. 
  • Call ahead: While your local or state health department will most likely keep tabs on your health, you may need to see your doctor, too. “First, try a virtual visit. Or at least, call ahead first, so that the medical facility can take steps to prevent others from getting infected,” says Dr. Gordon. 
  • Worried about Fido?  At this time, there’s no evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19. But it may still be good to still use caution. If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, avoid “petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked and sharing food [during a coronavirus quarantine],” recommended. 
  • Have your own stuff: Don’t swap unwashed dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels or bedding with other people or pets in your home,”. 
  • Wash, rinse, repeat: “Hygiene is an integral part of this, even at home. Handwashing should be your first line of defense when under quarantine,” relates Dr. Gordon. “And don’t forget to cough or sneeze into your elbows or a tissue that you then throw away.”

Other protective measures

Quarantine isn’t the only way to protect yourself during an epidemic. Dr. Gordon also recommends:

  • Social distancing: Social distancing involves avoiding large gatherings. If you have to be around people, keep 6 feet (2 meters) between you when possible. “Social distancing is pretty much like using common sense,” Dr. Gordon says. “We don’t realize how interconnected we are until we’re asked to avoid people.” But he notes that terms like “mass gatherings” or “congregate settings” are vague. They’re used to describe things like shopping centers, movie theaters or stadiums. But how many people together is too many? “That’s a moving target,” he says.
  • Staying calm: “While fear is normal, educating yourself is a great way to counterbalance your anxiety,” says Dr. Gordon. “Stay informed from reliable sources — but not too intensely. Hyper-fixating on the news can be just as detrimental.”
  • Cooperating with the authorities: Following quarantines and other public health mandates help slow — and stop — the spread of contagious diseases.

Being cooped up inside may seem unbearable. But the time WILL pass, and your forced staycation may save lives.