Today, we focus on one word that is a big deal during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’ll define it. Explain it. Demystify it. Help you understand when to do it and for how long.
What is quarantine?
By definition, quarantine is a place or a period of time where people who have been exposed to an infectious or contagious disease avoid physical contact with others. Quarantine also can apply to people who might have been exposed, or to travelers arriving from another location.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention draws a slight, but important, distinction between quarantine and isolation.
“The CDC definition is used to keep someone who might have been exposed to COVID-19 away from others. Isolation is used to keep people whom we know are infected away from healthy people,” said Ralph Velazquez, MD, chief medical officer for OSF HealthCare.
When should you quarantine?
The simple answer is as soon as you think you have been exposed to an infected person.
If you have been in close contact with someone who tests positive, quarantine immediately. Do this even if you experience no symptoms. Sometimes, symptoms do not appear until several days after you’ve been exposed. It also is possible that you never experience symptoms but are still infected.
In either case, you would be contagious. You quarantine to prevent spreading the disease to others.
What is close contact?
“We’re talking two primary factors: time and proximity,” Dr. Velazquez said. “We define close contact as being within six feet of someone for a total of 15 minutes or more within a 24-hour period. The 15 minutes can be all at one time, or they can be cumulative, compiled over multiple encounters within the 24-hour period.
“But deciding whether to quarantine requires you to be aware of other factors as well.”
Indoor contact carries a greater risk than outdoor. The risk of indoor venues can vary, depending on the size of the room, the number of people and the quality of ventilation. Or perhaps you have only a brief encounter, but there’s physical contact. Hugs and kisses are close contact. So is providing care to someone who is sick with COVID-19.
And there can be quirky considerations.
“If you go to a gathering and someone across the room has COVID-19, you might think you have less risk,” Dr. Velazquez said. “But here’s where it gets tricky. I didn’t go near that person, but I was close to someone who was hugging them and spent 15 minutes with them earlier. I have to consider that potential.
“It’s pretty consistent, what we’re finding out now. The virus is being spread when people let down their guard.”
How long should you quarantine?
The CDC baseline quarantine is 14 days, because research has shown that’s the maximum incubation period for COVID-19. Counting begins at zero, on the most recent day you were exposed.
Most people don’t know right away that they’ve been exposed, so it might be a couple of days before they start to quarantine. But the count always starts on the day of exposure.
Let’s say you get exposed on Sunday, which becomes Day 0. You find out Wednesday (Day 3) that you had been exposed, so you immediately go into quarantine. You remain in quarantine through the end of Day 14.
Download this chart, which shows a sample timeline of how incubation and quarantine work.
Can quarantine be shorter than 14 days?
In December 2020, the CDC issued guidelines for reduced quarantine durations in certain circumstances.
Research showed only about a 1% rate of symptoms occurring more than 10 days after exposure. It’s believed that a shorter duration might encourage people to quarantine. Shortening the time also helps reduce stress on the public health system.
Local public health officials determine which revised guidelines they will follow. Consult your local public health department for information on what applies to your area.
The revised guidelines provide two alternative time periods:
- 10 days. If you experience no symptoms throughout the first 10 days after exposure, you may end your quarantine.
- Seven days. If you experience no symptoms throughout the first seven days after exposure, you may end quarantine if you take a COVID-19 test on Day 5 or later and the result is negative.
In both cases, you must wear a mask and continue to monitor for symptoms through Day 14. If you experience symptoms in that time frame, you must isolate and notify your health care provider or your local public health department.
Should you get tested in quarantine?
Unless ordered to be tested, the decision is yours. But be careful about testing too early. And be aware that you can test negative today and positive tomorrow.
“The incubation period may be up to 14 days before the virus turns positive or you become symptomatic,” Dr. Velazquez said. “Most will turn positive or symptomatic sooner, but a few will not.”
Why should you quarantine?
Quarantines have a long history and have proven an effective method of infection control.
“As much as we resist lockdowns and don’t want to impose on individual freedom, lockdowns work,” Dr. Velazquez said.
“So if you come in contact with anyone who has COVID-19, do something known to work. Quarantine yourself for 14 days. Stay away from other people for 14 days. It’s OK to go into your yard; staying home also includes being outdoors, and the fresh air and sunlight are good for you. But avoid contact with other people. That’s the key.”
If you get vaccinated, do you need to quarantine?
According to CDC guidelines updated in February 2021, if you have been fully vaccinated within the past three months and show no symptoms of the disease, you are not required to quarantine if you have close contact with someone who has COVID-19.
Likewise, if you have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past three months and show no symptoms of the disease, you are not required to quarantine if you have close contact with an infected person.
It remains unknown whether getting the vaccine will prevent you from spreading the virus to other people, even though you aren’t sick. So you should continue to wear a mask, maintain physical distance and wash your hands regularly.