You’ve Been Told to Self-Quarantine: Now What?

A quarantine is one of the best ways to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Here’s what you need to know

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Picture this: Kate, a devoted grandma, proudly watched her granddaughter’s dance recital a few days ago at the local school, along with a few hundred other proud onlookers. Now, she found out that someone in the crowd tested positive for COVID-19, also known as coronavirus. She also heard on the news that the local health department is asking those who attended the recital to self-quarantine for two weeks.

What does it mean to be quarantined?

“The goal of [a] quarantine is to slow down the spread of infection,” explains Brandon Brown, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the University of California, Riverside. “If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19—even if you don’t have symptoms—we ask you to stay home until we know for sure. Quarantine might be inconvenient, but it could save lives.”

Like Kate, you might have been exposed to COVID-19. Maybe it was on a plane or bus, or maybe at a place of worship or a soccer game. And now, your doctor or your local health department is telling you to self-quarantine, either directly or in a public statement. Here’s what you need to know.

Is quarantine the same as isolation?

No, says Antonia Altomare, D.O., hospital epidemiologist and infectious disease physician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire. “We quarantine people we think were exposed to someone who is infected—we get them into a protected space, apart from other people, as a way to stop the transmission cycle. Isolation, though, applies to someone who has symptoms and is suspected or confirmed to have a disease.”

People who have symptoms or who have tested positive for COVID-19 need to isolate, which means that they not only need to stay home, but they also need to keep six feet away from people in their home, according to Dr. Altomare.

How do I know if I need to self-quarantine?

There are a few ways you would find out, says Dr. Altomare. “Typically, you’d be contacted by your local health department and told you were in close contact with a person with COVID-19, and asked to self-quarantine,” she explains.

Or, like Kate, you might hear a news report and realize you may have been exposed at an event. “That’s when a public service announcement may go out,” Dr. Altomare explains. “In the end, whichever way it happens, take it seriously.” And be sure to inform health officials if you believe that you were exposed.

Am I required to follow a quarantine order?

That depends, explains Katharine Van Tassel, an attorney specializing in health law and a visiting professor at Case Western Reserve University. “Right now, quarantines are mostly voluntary,” she says. “But once a public health official puts a quarantine order in place, it’s a misdemeanor to violate it. You could get a fine or even jail time, and you’d have a criminal record that would show up in a background check.”

What exactly should I do if I’m quarantined?

Stay home. You don’t have to confine yourself to one room, or isolate yourself from the family members who live with you. “There’s no need to wear a mask or any other protective equipment,” says Dr. Altomare. “After all, this is only a precautionary move—you may not have the virus after all.”

Self-quarantine isn’t like solitary confinement. You have free run of your house or apartment. You can cook meals and eat with your family—just do your best to keep some distance between each other.

And Dr. Altomare says there’s no need to feel like a prisoner. If you’ve got a private backyard, get out for some fresh air and exercise, or walk down to the end of your driveway to pick up the mail. But avoid contact with anyone outside your house. That means no trips to the mall, the post office, or the pizza shop.

Should I monitor my symptoms?

Definitely. Follow directions from your local health department or your doctor. They’ll need to follow your progress over your two-week quarantine period, so be sure to keep a log. “People who are quarantined have a duty to monitor themselves,” says Dr. Altomare.

“Take your temperature twice a day and watch out for symptoms such as [a] fever, cough, or shortness of breath. The health department may call daily to check in on you—to see how you’re feeling and determine if you need testing or isolation,” she says.

What about my job?

That depends. If you’re lucky enough to have paid sick time, you’ll continue to receive your salary and health insurance. But if your employer doesn’t provide these benefits, you are likely anxious that you might experience some serious financial hardship. Congress is currently working on measures to help people who are being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

You do have some important legal protection though, such as if your boss threatens to fire you for taking time off to self-quarantine when you may have been exposed to coronavirus. “Nearly all states have laws in place requiring you to quarantine yourself, if necessary, for the public health,” explains Van Tassel. “Your employer can’t fire you for obeying the law—that’s wrongful termination and if it happens, you can fight it in court. After all, a citizen who’s sacrificing their time—and maybe even losing their pay—is helping to protect all of us during this pandemic.”

If you can’t afford a lawyer, Van Tassel points out, you can get help at your local Legal Aid.

How can I keep my spirits up?

Two weeks is a long time to be cooped up at home, so have a plan to keep busy. “The worst thing you can do is sit and watch the news,” says Dr. Altomare. “All the panic and chaos is definitely bad for your mental health.”

Instead, she suggests, fill your days with activities that keep you engaged. “Make your routine as normal as possible—there’s no reason not to go about your usual work and activities in your home. If you can do your job remotely, that’s great. If not, read a book or do whatever you enjoy. Don’t just sit and stare at the clock.”

Your Self-Quarantine Supply List

These are the necessities you need to have on hand in case you’re told to stay home. Keep in mind that a self-quarantine lasts for 14 days—so plan accordingly. And if you have pets, don’t forget about them.

Food

You’ll want an assortment of:

  • Non-perishables, such as pasta, soup, cereal, and beans (and don’t forget the coffee!)
  • Freezer foods, including easy-prep meals and treats
  • Family favorites

Household Items

● Hand soap and hand lotion

● Paper goods (toilet paper, tissues, paper towels)

● Toothpaste

● Laundry detergent

● Cleaning supplies—find the EPA-approved coronavirus disinfectants here

● Trash bags

Medications

● A 14-day minimum supply of any prescription medications you take regularly. Ask your doctor, pharmacist, or health plan provider about getting a 30- or 90-day supply

● Over-the-counter (OTC) fever reducers, pain relievers, and cold and flu remedies

The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department.