As cases of COVID-19 climb nationwide, it is a good time to clarify terminology that will help us all follow the crucial directions. The words social distancing, quarantine, and isolation sometimes get used interchangeably, but there are real differences between them. Knowing those differences and the meanings of other commonly used words related to the pandemic, is more important than ever.
Social Distancing means that you keep 6 feet away from people that you don’t live with. You go out only for essentials. You wear a mask when in public. When you need to visit someone, you do so outdoors. To stop the spread, everyone needs to practice social distancing around the clock for the foreseeable future.
An Exposure is when you come into close contact—within 6 feet of someone for at least 15 minutes—with someone positive for, suspected of, or potentially positive for COVID-19. Risk increases as closeness and time increase. Those who feel they may have been exposed should quarantine.
Quarantine is when you stay at home, because either you recognize that you were not properly protected and may have been exposed to COVID, you have returned from travel to a high risk area for COVID, or because your local Department of Health notified you that you were exposed to a known case of COVID. People in quarantine may also need to isolate.
Quarantines are 14 days long, starting the last time you were with someone with COVID-19. In Vermont, we also have an alternative: a 7-day quarantine followed by a PCR test. This allows the person to return carefully to socializing using masks, hand washing, and distancing sooner.
During a quarantine, people should monitor symptoms daily and call a healthcare provider if symptoms develop. (If you don’t have a healthcare provider and you would like to get tested, you can call the SVMC COVID-19 Info Hotline at 802-440-8844.) You may also be followed by the contact control system. In Vermont, for instance, those in quarantine are contacted by the Department of Health daily.
Isolation is when you stay in a room away from even those you live with. In addition, isolation means everyone in the house should wear a mask when they are near each other and if they are passing through the same space within an hour of one another. It takes virus particles up to an hour to settle to the floor. Eat in separate rooms and use a separate bathroom, if possible. Clean and disinfect all common surfaces at least twice a day.
Isolation is appropriate for those who have tested positive, have symptoms, have had a high-risk exposure, or have engaged in activity that puts them or someone they live with at high risk, such as an indoor party without masks or an outdoor party with little masking or distancing.
If you are diagnosed with COVID infection, isolation means you are alone for at least 7 days, plus the time necessary to be fever free for 24 hours without fever-reducing medications.
If we all work together and follow the recommendations we are given, we can minimize outbreaks in the future.
Marie George, MD, is an infectious disease specialist at SVMC Infectious Disease.