- Health officials are asking people to self-quarantine as cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continue to climb in the U.S.
- Experts say it’s likely that more people will be asked to self-quarantine as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country.
- Doctors explain what self-quarantine means, how it’s different from isolation, and what you can do to prepare now.
Coronavirus cases are climbing in the United States, and health officials are acting fast to try to contain the disease within state borders. With that, some local governments are asking certain people to self-quarantine in an effort to reduce the public’s exposure to COVID-19.
In New York City, more than 2,000 people have been asked to self-quarantine as health officials try to find anyone who has come into contact with the state’s confirmed coronavirus cases, The New York Times reports. And in California, more than 9,400 travelers have been asked to stay at home and monitor their health, according to the state’s department of public health.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, it’s likely that more people will be asked to self-quarantine. But what does this mean, exactly? Here’s what you need to know.
Self-quarantine vs. self-isolation: What’s the difference?
The term quarantine “applies to people without symptoms,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Those who are “reasonably believed” to have been exposed to a contagious disease are instructed to self-quarantine in an effort to prevent it spreading, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They are generally asked to stay home until it is confirmed they are not sick.
Ideally, you would “avoid going out to large or crowded public spaces and would not go into work,” says David Cennimo, M.D., assistant professor of medicine-pediatrics infectious disease at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Think of it as “avoiding anything that would later be announced on the radio as you exposing all these people in the mall, movie theater, etc.”
People who are in self-isolation, on the other hand, have actually shown symptoms of a contagious disease. “Self-isolation involves an individual voluntarily limiting their contact with others for a specified duration of time to prevent transmission of infection,” he explains.
While most people willingly go into self-quarantine or isolation, in some cases, a legal quarantine order could be issued if you refuse to comply. “You could be in trouble if you left your home and violated it,” Dr. Cennimo says. In most states, breaking this order can result in a misdemeanor on your record, the CDC says.
Who is being asked to self-quarantine for COVID-19?
Travelers returning to the U.S. from certain areas where coronavirus cases are high are being instructed to spend 14 days in self-quarantine. The CDC is specifically making this request of people returning from Italy, South Korea, and some parts of China.
In other instances, people who may have come into contact with someone with a confirmed case of coronavirus are also being asked to self-quarantine.
How to self-quarantine for novel coronavirus
Because the U.S. is expecting the number of COVID-19 cases to rise, health officials are suggesting that you prepare for a potential outbreak in your area now. If you are asked to self-quarantine, here are some important points to keep in mind:
Can I leave my home during self-quarantine?
Local jurisdictions set the guidelines for this, and each is slightly different, so be sure to visit the website for your local health department to make sure you are getting accurate updates. Because the purpose of self-quarantine is to limit contact with others, in general, you should stay home. (If you have a yard, though, “there really should be no issue with going outside on one’s own property,” Dr. Adalja says.)
What happens if I need groceries while in self-quarantine?
Consider this your cue to stock up on two week’s worth of essentials. Opt for things like canned and packaged foods with a longer shelf life, cleaning supplies, basic hygiene products, go-to meds like acetaminophen, and prescriptions. If you run out of supplies while in self-quarantine, it’s best to use a delivery service and have goods delivered outside your door. However, Dr. Adalja stresses that “people shouldn’t hoard food.”
What if I live with other people?
Don’t worry, you don’t need to move out! The CDC recommends staying in your own room as much as possible, only wearing a face mask if you have tested positive for COVID-19 (it’s unnecessary otherwise), and having your own set of eating utensils, towels, bedding, and other personal items. Anything that is shared with other people while your are in quarantine should be washed well with soap and water. Continue to wash your hands well and often.
How long does self-quarantine last?
It depends on your specific situation—say, if you’re considered to be in high-risk group or had direct contact with someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19—but most people are being asked to stay home for 14 days.
What should I do if I start experiencing symptoms?
While in self-quarantine, you “would also be monitoring closely for any symptoms and probably recording your temperature a couple of times per day,” Dr. Cennimo says. Symptoms of COVID-19 are not unlike the flu, and include having a runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat, fever, and a general feeling of being unwell.
If you do end up developing symptoms, the CDC says you “should self-isolate, limit contact with others, and seek advice by telephone from a healthcare provider or local health department to determine whether medical evaluation is needed.”
Will anyone check in with me during self-quarantine or isolation?
In some cases, local health officials may reach out to see how you are doing via text, phone, or video conference. For example, New Yorkers who have tested positive for COVID-19 are being “monitored,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo told local news station WCBS. “We check on those people and make sure they are doing it.”
In Washington state, which has seen the largest number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. so far, health officials are calling people at least twice during their quarantine period. “Some (residents) receive instructions to stay home and let us know if they have symptoms,” a Snohomish Health District spokeswoman told CNN. “Others get texts, or daily calls if they don’t use text. We do a call at the beginning and call at the end of 14 days to release if symptom-free.”
Once someone has completed quarantine and been released, it is determined that they do not pose a risk of infecting other people.
Bottom line: You can expect to see more self-quarantine and self-isolation requests in the future.
While it’s not incredibly common right now, “as more cases of suspected novel coronavirus occur, self-isolation for those who do not require hospitalization will become the norm,” Dr. Adalja says.