Coronavirus: Isolate or quarantine? What’s the difference?

It is stressful enough dealing with COVID-19. Trying to sort through courses of action when confronted with the virus is another matter.

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Should a person isolate when you or a family member is exposed to COVID-19? Or should that person be quarantined? And for how long?

Is there really a difference?

Yes. Health care providers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have set out clear definitions and guidelines.

According to the CDC, to isolate means to separate people with a contagious disease from those who are not sick.

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To quarantine means to separate and restrict the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.

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

On Tuesday, U.S. health officials announced the cutting of isolation restrictions for Americans who catch COVID-19, trimming the wait time from 10 days to five, The Associated Press reported.

The difference between isolation and quarantine is also clear-cut when it comes to COVID-19.

According to the CDC, isolation refers to the course of action people should take when they suspect or confirm that they have COVID-19, even if no symptoms are apparent. Here are the steps to take:

  • Monitor your symptoms. If you have a symptom that warns of a potentially severe case, such as trouble breathing, seek medical care immediately.
  • Stay in a separate room from other household members, if possible.
  • Use a separate bathroom if possible.
  • Avoid contact with other members of the household and pets, who can also get COVID-19.
  • Do not share personal household items, like cups, towels and utensils.
  • Wear a mask when around other people, if possible.

After five days, if a person is asymptomatic or symptoms have largely abated (no fever for 24 hours), a person can end isolation, NPR reported. That is, as long as they continue to wear a mask around others, even in the home, for another five days.

Dr. Leana Wen, research professor of health policy and management at George Washington University and former Baltimore health commissioner, told NPR that the CDC guidelines were “issued out of necessity.”

“We are facing the possibility of the U.S. surpassing more than one million COVID cases every single day,” Wen said. “At that level, we would not be able to sustain our critical infrastructure and the CDC issued the guidelines to keep our society functioning.”

“That doesn’t mean, though,” Wen said, “that five days of isolation is ideal, so if someone has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and they are, for example, planning to visit an older person in a nursing home.

“My recommendation is that they isolate until they are able to get a negative test if it’s within 10 days, or wait 10 days (from testing positive).”

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, had some criticisms of the new isolation guidelines, listing them in a tweet.

As for quarantine, it means to avoid others after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, even if it is unclear whether a person has been infected. According to the CDC, the current definition of exposure is being in close contact with that COVID-positive person for more than 15 minutes in a single day and at a distance of 6 feet or less.

  • Unlike isolation, to quarantine means a person does not have to barricade themselves in a room, NPR reported. However, persons should wear masks around others in their household and avoid people who are at higher risk of becoming ill from COVID-19, according to the CDC.
  • Monitor fever, particularly at 100.4 degrees or higher, and be aware of coughing, shortness of breath or other COVID-19 symptoms. Persons who develop symptoms should switch to the CDC’s isolation rules.
  • Persons should quarantine for five days following exposure. After five days, they should be tested, NPR reported.

“The vast majority of viral transmission happens in those first five days, somewhere in the 85% to 90% range,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.

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