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Finding out that you or someone close to you has been exposed to COVID-19 can be an extremely nerve-wracking and stressful event. Our lives have already been turned upside down by physical distancing, mask-wearing, sheltering in place and skyrocketing case numbers at every turn. But when the coronavirus shows up at your door, panic, frustration and even some confusion can arrive right along with it. So, what do you do if you or someone else under your roof has been exposed to COVID-19 and how long do you need to isolate? Keep reading to learn some helpful quarantine guidelines from healthcare providers and the CDC.
Why should you quarantine?
While the thought of quarantining might be overwhelming or quite dreadful for some, the actual process doesn’t have to be unpleasant. The whole point of quarantine is to prevent illnesses from spreading regardless if you have symptoms or not.
“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.”
The difference between isolation and quarantine
While isolation and quarantine ultimately have the same goal, isolation has been designated for those who are already sick. Its purpose is to keep infected people away from healthy people so viruses like COVID-19 don’t spread.
When should you quarantine?
If you are experiencing common symptoms of COVID-19 or you tested positive for the virus, isolate as soon as possible.
The CDC also recommends that people who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 — excluding people who have had COVID-19 within the past 3 months —should quarantine.
What is considered close contact?
The CDC defines it as the following:
- You were within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more.
- You provided care at home to someone who is sick with COVID-19.
- You had direct physical contact with the person (hugged or kissed them).
- You shared eating or drinking utensils.
- They sneezed, coughed, or somehow got respiratory droplets on you.
Ways to quarantine
If you live with others and are sick you should stay in a separate bedroom and use a separate bathroom if possible. You’ll need to avoid other common areas as well to prevent spreading COVID-19 to others.
The CDC also recommends:
- Staying home for seven or 10 days after your last contact with a person who has COVID-19. Seven days is the recommendation if you’re not showing symptoms and you tested negative. (Keep in mind that you should get tested around the fifth day of your quarantine.) Ten days is the recommendation if you’ve been exposed but not tested and aren’t showing any symptoms. If you get a negative test result back before day seven, stay isolated for the full seven days. If you don’t get results back by day seven, continue to quarantine until day 10.
- Watching for a fever (100.4◦F), cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms of COVID-19.
- Keeping your distance from others, especially people who are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19.
- If you need to be around other people or animals in or outside of the home, wear a mask.
- Tell those who you were in contact with that they were possibly exposed to COVID-19.
Infected people can spread COVID-19 starting 48 hours (or two days) before they have symptoms or test positive. Inform everyone sooner than later to help prevent further transmission.
How to quarantine if you live alone
If you live alone, it can be tough to stay put if you don’t have help. But these tips can help you stay safe and keep you from spreading the virus.
- Stay home except to get medical care.
- Do not visit public spaces.
- Take care of yourself. Get rest and stay hydrated. Take over-the-counter medicines, such as acetaminophen, to help you feel better.
- Stay in touch with your doctor and call before you get medical care. Be sure to get help immediately if you have trouble breathing, or have any other emergency warning signs.
- Avoid public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.
What can you do if you’re unable to avoid common areas?
If you live in close quarters and don’t have multiple bathrooms or even a space to avoid others, James Merlino, MD, Chief Clinical Transformation Officer, recommends the following.
Create as much air circulation as possible in your home by opening windows, if it’s warm enough outside to do so. “If you have to be in close proximity to the person who is sick, you can all wear masks,” Dr. Merlino says. “But trying to keep people separated as much as possible is the best thing you can do.” And of course, stay on top of hand hygiene and disinfecting your space.
When should you start and end quarantine?
The CDC advises that you stay at home for seven or 10 days after the last date of contact with someone who had COVID-19. Fourteen days is still the safest option though. Even if you test negative for COVID-19 or feel healthy, you should still stay at home since symptoms may appear between two and 14 days after you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus. Regardless if you quarantine for seven or 10 days, you’ll still need to watch for symptoms for the full 14 days.
How long should you quarantine if you’ve been in close contact with someone COVID-19, but won’t be around them again?
If you were around a friend, coworker or neighbor, it’s much easier to distance yourself from them. As for how long you should quarantine, the CDC says seven or 10 days from the date of exposure. So, if you saw your friend who was infected on Dec. 1, your quarantine would end on Dec. 8 or Dec. 11. If the last interaction was around 2 p.m., your quarantine would end at 2 p.m. on the last day of your quarantine.
How long should you quarantine if you live with someone who has COVID-19, but can avoid close contact with them (meaning they can self-isolate)?
In a situation like this, the CDC says your last day of quarantine is seven or 10 days from when the person with COVID-19 began home isolation. So again, if they started their self-isolation at 2 p.m. on Dec. 1, the end of your quarantine would be on Dec. 8 or Dec. 11 at 2 p.m.
How long do you need to quarantine if you had close contact with someone who has COVID-19 while you were in quarantine?
This one can be a bummer because it will require you to restart your quarantine over. For example, if you’re already under quarantine as of Dec. 1, but on Dec. 5, you came in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, you now have to start the quarantine process over. So, instead of your quarantine ending on Dec. 8 or Dec.11, it would now end on Dec. 12 or Dec. 15 and around the time you made contact. Keep in mind that every time you come into close contact with an infected person, you’ll need to add another seven to 10 days to the quarantine calendar.
If you can’t avoid close contact with someone who has COVID-19, how long should you quarantine?
If you are caring for someone who is sick and you don’t have a way to isolate them or physical distance, the CDC recommends avoiding contact with people outside of your living space while the person is sick. You’ll also need to quarantine for seven or 10 days after the person who has COVID-19 can end their home isolation.
People who are severely ill might need to stay home for up to 20 days after their symptoms appeared. If someone is severely immunocompromised, check with their healthcare provider to determine if they should be tested to determine if they can be around others again.
If you are quarantining alone, keep these tips in mind.
When are you in the clear?
Infectious disease specialist Alan Taege, MD, says that once a person meets certain criteria for a mild case of COVID-19 (10 days with no fever and symptoms have improved), they can safely leave isolation. However, he adds that once you leave isolation, you’ll need to keep practicing pandemic safety guidelines, which include: washing your hands, not touching your face, wearing a face mask and social distancing.
Things to keep in mind when caring for someone with COVID-19
Remember that in most cases, people who get sick with COVID-19 can recover safely at home. They’ll just need reminders to get rest and stay away from others. Dr. Merlino recommends that when you are caring for someone who is infected, stay in contact with a healthcare provider. They may be advised to get tested for COVID-19 or to just stay home and monitor their symptoms.
If the person you’re caring for has tested positive or has symptoms of COVID-19, here’s what you can do to help them get better:
- Check on them often, and watch for warning signs. Things can change quickly with COVID-19. If your friend or loved one starts experiencing shortness of breath, persistent chest pain, confusion, trouble staying awake or their lips or face turns blue, get help immediately.
- Make sure they have medications and supplies. Keep a thermometer close so the person who is sick can monitor their fever, or you can help do so. A healthcare provider might even recommend over-the-counter medicines such as pain relievers, cough suppressants and fever reducers to help keep them comfortable.
- Help take care of their basic needs. This includes making sure that the person who is sick drinks lots of fluids and rests. You might also have to help with getting groceries delivered, preparing meals, caring for pets and taking care of other household duties. If you are at high risk, let someone else help with these tasks.
- Contact the people who they’ve been in close contact with. Make a list of the people who have been in close contact with the infected person. Then, let them know immediately so they can quarantine as recommended by the CDC.
- Offer emotional support. Isolation can be boring and frustrating, especially if people are pretty active before getting sick. When someone is in isolation, don’t just let them sit in their room without any type of interaction. “Supporting people’s emotional state is really important,” Dr. Merlino says. Arrange video chats with family and friends or slide hand-written notes or art activities under the door daily.
If you end up in a quarantine or self-isolation situation, don’t panic
COVID-19 might find a way into your home, but that doesn’t mean that you’re automatically doomed. Family medicine physician Donald Ford, MD, MBA, offers some sage advice for being cautious and keeping things in perspective.
“It’s not 100% guaranteed that just because one person in the household gets the virus that everybody else is going to. That doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, but it’s not universal that everybody is going to get sick when COVID-19 is in your house. However, I do think it comes down to basic conscientiousness. I think people who are observing appropriate protection measures outside of their home are also probably doing the same at home, especially if someone is already sick. These are things like washing your hands, wearing a mask and being aware of physical distance (like not talking right in someone’s face). It’s also important to clean high-touch surfaces with disinfectants and limit physical (not emotional) interaction with the person who is sick.”