COVID-19: Understanding Quarantine, Isolation and Social Distancing in a Pandemic
An infectious disease doctor explains what quarantine means, the difference between quarantine and isolation and how to protect yourself.
This article was originally published on March 13, 2020. It was updated on April 4, 2020, to reflect new information about this rapidly evolving situation.
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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.
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:
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.
According to the U.S. Constitution, yes. 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.
While not all quarantines are the same, look to the CDC for how best to do your part. Currently, the CDC recommends:
Quarantine isn’t the only way to protect yourself during an epidemic. Dr. Gordon also recommends:
Being cooped up inside may seem unbearable. But the time WILL pass, and your forced staycation may save lives.