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Coronavirus (COVID-19): What Do Quarantine and Isolation Mean?

The recommendations for quarantine and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic keep changing, and I’m so confused. What do these words mean, and why do the recommendations keep changing?
– Isaac

We understand why you’re confused! The differences between these terms can be hard to grasp, even when they’re constantly in the news. As experts learn more about COVID-19, they sometimes change the guidelines, which can make things even more complicated.

Here’s an overview of what these words mean:

Quarantine means a person stays home after being exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. During the pandemic, people used to have to quarantine after close contact with someone infected with coronavirus. This was meant to keep people who might have been infected apart from others so they don’t spread the virus. Now that so many people have immunity to the coronavirus (due to vaccination or from a previous COVID-19 infection), the CDC no longer recommends quarantining after exposure. Instead, they recommend that people who are exposed wear a mask for 10 days.

Isolation means staying home when a person is infected with a contagious disease so they don’t spread it to others. It means staying away from family members too. During the pandemic, people should isolate if they:

  • have symptoms of COVID-19
  • test positive for coronavirus (with or without symptoms)

Even people who are fully vaccinated and have gotten a booster shot should isolate if they have symptoms or test positive.

Guidelines for how long to quarantine after exposure or for how long to isolate when infected can differ from country to country. They also change over time as the virus changes or there’s new information about how it spreads. Guidelines also can be used differently by some school districts or workplaces.

To get the most updated and relevant information for your family, call your doctor’s office, your child’s school district, or your local health department. The CDC can help you find the health department in your area.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: Aug 20, 2022

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