So You’ve Been Exposed
The Delta variant is far more transmissible than the earlier variants of COVID. Many people who have not yet had any personal experience with COVID are learning that someone in their circle has tested positive. This information was very well publicized in the past, but many people will need a refresher about what they should do.
What does it mean to be exposed? If you were within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes or more from someone who could have been shedding COVID virus, you were exposed. People shed virus starting 2 days before the onset of symptoms. Most likely, you will receive the news from an official source, like your child’s school or your Department of Health, for instance. In this case, they will provide important dates, including “day zero,” the day you or your child were last in contact with the person who has COVID, and other guidance. Here’s a review of what to expect:
If you’re vaccinated, you are protected. It’s not necessary to stay home from work or limit your interactions with others, unless you begin to experience symptoms. You may want to limit social interactions and mask in public, as recommended, as an extra precaution. If you would like to get tested for the purpose of reassurance, consider getting tested 3 – 5 days after the exposure. You will have to isolate only if your test is positive.
If you are not vaccinated, quarantine. That means that you stay home, except to get tested, get medical care, or if you feel your home is unsafe. Call ahead if you intend to get medical care. They will want to know that you have been exposed to COVID before you arrive.
If you live with others, isolate if possible. That means that you stay in a specific room in your home and use a separate bathroom. Stay at least 6 feet from others in your home at all times. Wear a mask if you are in the same room with other people. Don’t share household items. Everyone in the house should wash their hands well and often. Clean and disinfect surfaces in your home frequently.
Note #1: Isolating young children is extremely difficult and not recommended. If you are the parent of a child who has been exposed, just do your best to adhere to good hygiene as closely as possible.
Note # 2: Close contacts of those identified as close contacts to a COVID case—for instance, those who live with or take care of someone in quarantine—do not need to quarantine themselves, unless they have symptoms.
Get tested 2 days after the exposure. If the test is positive, isolate, if you have not already. If the test is negative, continue to quarantine. Get tested again 7 days after the exposure. If the result is negative, you are free to resume normal activity. If the result is positive, continue to isolate.
Watch for symptoms. Symptoms include a fever of 100.4 or higher, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chills, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, or diarrhea. If you experience any of these, call your medical provider.
Your medical provider will likely recommend that you treat your symptoms at home. Get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids, and take fever-reducing medication, if needed. Most people recover without needing any outside medical attention.
Call your healthcare provider or 9-1-1 if symptoms worsen, especially if you have trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or changes in color on your lips, gums, face, around the eyes, or nails.
You can end quarantine after 14 days, if you don’t get sick, or after a negative test.
It’s easy to see how much easier and safer having been vaccinated makes a COVID exposure. If you haven’t yet, get vaccinated. It’s quick and easy. Regardless of your vaccination status, please continue to wear a mask when inside in close proximity to others. Doing so will help us get through this most recent increase in cases of COVID-19.
Marie George, MD, FIDSA, is the infectious disease specialist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.