COVID-19 not only has been spreading around the globe, it’s also been taking over the media—and “infecting” most conversations these days! Besides worry about catching the virus, another big concern is quarantines, something this country has not experienced on a large scale in decades. What happens if you’re told you have to be quarantined? Here are answers to common questions about quarantine, isolation and more…

Social Distancing, Quarantine, Isolation—What Do They Mean?

There are three public health measures that cities and towns can put into place to help stop the spread of COVID-19…

• Social distancing. For a widespread outbreak, such as in Milan, Italy, California and the state of Washington, the local health department can take steps to limit opportunities for close contact—which means staying no closer than six feet away from another person, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. This might involve closing schools, temporarily banning public gatherings such as concerts or sporting events and closing playgrounds and public parks.

• Quarantine. People who live with or came in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus—such as a family member, office cubicle mate, fellow carpoolers—may be asked by their local health department to stay at home for at least 14 days and monitor any symptoms. Monitoring symptoms could mean taking your temperature once or twice a day and reporting, for instance, whether you have a cough or shortness of breath. Public health officials also will do a risk assessment of each household based on the level of contact the ill person had with others and at what stage of illness. Depending on the likelihood of risk to the public, other members of the household may be allowed to go out on a limited basis—for instance, to grab a few things from a grocery store or even to work in an office where there would not be contact with others. Once the sick person is symptom-free for 14 days, quarantine ends. Ideally the person would be tested again, but as test kits are in short supply, that may not happen.

• Isolation. This is the most extreme step taken to prevent the spread of illness. For COVID-19, it is reserved for people who have symptoms such as fever, cough and/or shortness of breath. It may mean staying at home if symptoms are mild and can be managed. Family members who care for sick loved ones should practice good hygiene—such as handwashing and cleaning surfaces. Anyone who is immunocompromised should be kept away from the sick person while he/she is symptomatic.

For severe symptoms—especially if they are life-threatening—it means staying in a special unit at a hospital equipped to handle COVID-19. Once you have been put into isolation, medical authorities and the local health department decide when you’re unlikely to transmit the virus to others and it’s safe for you to leave isolation. This can take days or weeks, depending on the severity of the illness.

For both quarantine and social isolation, you’re usually under the honor system to comply. However, local and state authorities do have the legal right to make isolation and quarantine official. When that happens, breaking the rules carries severe consequences and could include a fine or imprisonment.  

What am I allowed/not allowed to do if I’m quarantined or isolated at home? Basically, health officials are asking you to be thoughtful. Curtail behaviors and outings that could increase the risk of infecting others—especially those at highest risk for severe illness, such as the elderly and people with chronic health conditions (such as patients undergoing cancer treatments or immunosuppressive therapy, or who have respiratory conditions or cardiovascular disease).That might include…

Avoiding grocery store runs. And malls, drugstores, restaurants and other dining and shopping venues. Knowing in advance that you might be temporarily cut off from such venues is a good incentive to stock up now on foods, medicine, water and other essentials that experts warn us to keep on hand in case of a natural disaster or other emergency. You can find suggestions for what types of foods to stock on the Department of Homeland Security website. If you take medications, have an extra month’s supply of all the prescription drugs. You may need to contact your insurance company to see if it will cover an extra prescription, at least on an emergency basis. In Washington State, the insurance commissioner issued an emergency order to state health insurance companies requiring them to pay for a onetime early refill for prescription drugs. Other states may follow suit.

Ordering online. Packages from Amazon or other online vendors typically can be dropped off at your house without the delivery person needing to be in contact with you.  

It’s OK to walk the dog (or yourself). With social distancing, you can go out for a stroll or jog in the neighborhood or the park, as long as you stay far away from others. That means no standing to chat with a neighbor. And don’t do your power walks at the mall!

If you need a repair person. If you have a building emergency—such as your furnace isn’t working or you have a plumbing leak—and need service right away, be upfront with the company so they can prepare their service people. When they come over, keep repair people far away from any sick family members. Pay the company by phone with a credit card—and don’t shake hands. It would also be good to clean surfaces the repair people will be exposed to before they come over.

If you need a doctor. If you or family members get sick—or symptoms get worse—do not just go to the ER or your doctor. Do alert your local hospital emergency room or doctor’s office. Let them know your symptoms so you can bypass the waiting room and lower the chances of infecting the other people there. If you can’t drive yourself and someone you’ve already had close contact with can’t drive you, do not ask a friend or call a taxi or Uber—which would expose someone else. If you need to call an ambulance or 911, let them know what your symptoms are so that they can take proper precautions.

Follow public health recommendations. Your local and state public health departments will have updated advice that is specific to your area. Call or check their websites and social media pages.

Does the government have the power to force people to stay inside their homes? It is rare for an entire city or community to be shut down—quarantine, isolation and social distancing are more commonly done at the level of individuals or groups of individuals. State governors have the authority to declare a state of emergency, and certain counties or cities may have the authority to declare public health emergencies. Even if a state of emergency hasn’t been declared, states and local jurisdictions may mandate quarantine, isolation and/or social distancing policies to help keep a disease, such as COVID-19, from spreading. Local health department officials along with schools, businesses and law enforcement determine how to implement the policies.

Staying at home or, worst case, having to go to a quarantine facility can seem like an imposition. But we’re all part of a larger community. These steps are only taken when there is an absolute need to protect all of us—including you. And bear in mind that they’re temporary. Meanwhile, there are things you can do right now to help prevent outbreaks of any kind by just following good hygiene—wash your hands often…cough and sneeze into a tissue (and then throw it away) or your elbow or shoulder.