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Isolation is for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 while quarantine is for people who have been in contact with someone with the disease. Getty Images
  • New guidelines have been issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about isolation and quarantine for COVID-19.
  • Isolation is for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and requires people to stay in their homes for at least 10 days while monitoring symptoms.
  • Quarantine is for people who been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 and requires staying at home for at least 14 days while monitoring symptoms.

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Knowing when and how to isolate or quarantine can help stop the spread of COVID-19.

But isolation and quarantine are not the same thing.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses the two terms for different circumstances.

“There’s a distinction between quarantine and isolation. Quarantine is for people who have been exposed and have not yet developed symptoms, and don’t know if they have it,” Dr. Anne Liu, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care in California, told Healthline. “Isolation is for people who are suspected to have COVID-19 or had COVID-19, or who have tested positive whether or not they have symptoms.”

“I think that’s a distinction that is probably very often lost because they are also commonly used words,” Liu added. “I don’t think everybody quite appreciates that these are terms specific to these situations.”

According to newly updated CDC guidelines, isolation is used to separate those infected with COVID-19 from those who aren’t.

Those in isolation need to stay home for at least 10 days after their symptoms begin and until their symptoms have improved and they have been without fever for at least 24 hours without fever reducing medications.

In the home, those in isolation should try and stay away from other members of the household.

“The idea is that you minimize contact with anyone else to limit spread of disease,” Dr. Dean A. Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California Davis, told Healthline. “So, stay at home during the isolation period, preferably in a separate bedroom from others in the household, use a separate bathroom if possible, and avoid all contact with other household members and pets.”

“Don’t share personal items like dishes or glasses. The only reason to leave the house is if you need to get medical care, and then wear a face covering if you can to avoid spread to others,” he added.

The guidance surrounding quarantine is slightly different.

“Quarantine is meant to keep someone who has had close contact with someone who has COVID-19 away from others,” Dr. Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at The University of Kansas Health System, told Healthline. “You should stay home for the 14-day quarantine period while also monitoring for symptoms.”

According to the CDC guidelines, any person who has been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 needs to quarantine.

The CDC categorizes close contact as:

  • Being within 6 feet of someone with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes
  • Providing care for someone with COVID-19 at home
  • Direct physical contact such as kissing or hugging with someone who has COVID-19
  • Sharing of utensils
  • Being exposed to droplets via coughing or sneezing from someone with COVID-19

While those in isolation need to stay home for 10 days and wait until fever and symptoms have passed, those in quarantine must stay home for 14 days from last contact with a person who has COVID-19.

Experts say quarantine can help stop the virus spreading from people who don’t yet know they are sick or infected.

“We put people in quarantine who have been exposed because they may develop the infection and we know that the incubation period is before that infection develops, that is before a test becomes positive and or a person develops symptoms,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Healthline.

For those awaiting COVID-19 test results, Hawkinson says the advice is slightly different depending on the reason for testing.

“If a person got tested because they are symptomatic, they need to isolate until test results are known. If someone got tested because they were a close contact of a known COVID case, they need to continue the quarantine for 14 days,” he said.

Earlier in the year, some people were tested for COVID-19 multiple times. Some of those people consistently returned a positive result. But experts say repeat testing may not be indicative of infection.

“Early on in the epidemic we would keep those people in isolation because we were concerned that those prolonged positive tests correlated with infectiousness, but we’ve since discovered that’s not the case. You’re not infectious after ten days and if you should be tested thereafter and come back positive, that just represents fragments of the virus, not the whole virus. In effect, dead soldiers,” Schaffner explained.

“The guideline now says if you’ve had a positive test and 10 days have elapsed, your symptoms are improving and you have no fever for the last 24 hours, you’re free to go, you don’t need a test to get you out of isolation,” he added.

When it comes to the rules governing what’s allowed in isolation and quarantine, experts say it’s actually quite simple.

In either isolation or quarantine, people need to stay home at all times.

“Neither group of people should be out in the community and receiving visitors… without a lot of proper protective equipment. The safest situation is to not be in contact with others,” Liu said.

Schaffner agrees, saying leaving the house or receiving visitors during periods of isolation and quarantine is a bad idea. He says those isolating or quarantining should just stay home.

“During the quarantine and isolation period we would strongly discourage that. Don’t play around the edges thinking ‘how far can I go?’ You’re supposed to be sheltering in place,” he said.