The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us all to brush up on our public health jargon. Sometimes you’re told to quarantine. Sometimes you’re told to isolate. What is the difference between quarantine and isolation, anyway?
Both of these terms generally mean to separate yourself from other people. But the extent of the separation depends on whether you’re sick or not.
Quarantine means to keep a person separated from the general public, especially after they have been exposed to a contagious disease like COVID-19. The purpose of quarantining someone is to see if they get sick. However, some states have enacted blanket “stay-at-home” orders, which is the same concept as quarantine. These orders apply to everyone, whether they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or not. By asking everyone to quarantine except to run essential errands, these states hope to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Isolation, on the other hand, means separating sick people from well people. In the case of COVID-19, isolation means staying in your bedroom or another designated “sick space” during your illness to avoid contact with other members of your household. CDC guidelines recommend people ill with COVID-19 isolate themselves for 10 days after symptom onset, provided their fever goes away on its own during that time frame. While isolated, you should avoid leaving the sick space. Have someone bring food and water to your door and drop it off. You also should avoid sharing a bathroom, if possible, and rigorously disinfect any shared spaces.
In a nutshell: If you’re not sick but have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 (or if your state requires it), you should quarantine. If you are sick, you should isolate. By separating yourself from other people, you help limit the spread of COVID-19.