Just as in countries throughout the world, the United States has seen rates of COVID-19 grow exponentially. After all, early statistics suggest that each person infected with this novel coronavirus ends up infecting two to three more people, on average.
One way to help slow the spread of COVID-19 is by separating yourself from others through either isolation, quarantine, or social distancing. You may hear these terms used interchangeably, and most people will generally know what you mean, but here are the actual definitions of these three terms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
Isolation refers to separating sick people who are infected with COVID-19 away from others who are not sick.
Quarantine means separating and restricting the movement of people who have been exposed to COVID-19 (or an area where COVID-19 is circulating). It can take up to 14 days after infection to show symptoms of COVID-19, so that’s typically the recommended time of quarantine for coronavirus.
Social distancing refers to a community practice of keeping distance between yourself and others during an outbreak. You do not have to be infected or exposed to someone who was infected to practice social distancing. Learn more about social distancing practices here.
Who Should Isolate?
The guidelines for who should be quarantining and social distancing are a little more clear-cut. Social distancing is simply recommended for everyone during an outbreak.
“If you can, I would limit travel, work from home, avoid going to large gatherings or any events where you would be around a lot of different people,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital and Chief Medical Officer at HealthiNation.
As for quarantining, you will be told to do so, usually from your local government. This might be because someone in your workspace tested positive for COVID-19, or perhaps because you visited a town with a high rate of COVID-19.
For isolation, it can be a bit more tricky. “Isolate if you have COVID-19” is fairly simple advice, but testing kits are limited and not everyone who feels sick can know if they actually have COVID-19 or not.
“If you feel any symptoms, make sure you call your doctor right away,” says Dr. Parikh. Even if your doctor recommends not coming to the hospital or urgent care, they might suggest isolation until your symptoms go away. If your symptoms are severe, such as difficulty breathing, they might direct you to the emergency room.
“The most important thing is to keep on top of what the CDC is saying, [as well as] what your local government and department of health is recommending,” says Dr. Parikh.