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What It Actually Means To Self-Quarantine—And Why It’s Mission Critical Right Now

Erin Bunch

Erin BunchJuly 2, 2020

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Photo: Stocksy / Jovo Jovanovic

This summer looks like no other in American history. In some states, beaches and bars are closed, and gatherings are prohibited. Others have cautiously reopened and are relying on their citizens to remain socially distanced and masked up. And in a nearly unprecedented move, some of the latter—namely, states in the hard-hit Northeast region of the U.S.—are either requiring or requesting that some or all out-of-state visitors “self-quarantine” for two weeks before intermingling in their populations in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Self-quarantine is a term that’s been thrown around quite a bit over the course of the last few months, but what does it actually entail? For starters, Jennifer Horney, PhD, founding director of the University of Delaware’s epidemiology program, says it’s important to distinguish between the terms “self-quarantine” and “self-isolate.” The former is recommended for those who may have been exposed to someone infected with COVID by living in a city with uncontrolled spread, while the latter is for people who have been diagnosed as positive for COVID-19

If you’re being asked to self-quarantine, Dr. Horney says this means you should avoid contact with people outside and inside your home setting, if the latter did not share your exposure risk, and possibly even wear a mask indoors. If you’re visiting people, this means avoiding them for two weeks, too, with a private bedroom and bathroom or separate accommodations. You should not go out, even for groceries, even if wearing a mask. In self-quarantine, you’ll want to be watching for symptoms and regularly taking your temperature. Once the quarantine period is up, you can rejoin society to the degree it’s allowed in your state, city, or county.

Unfortunately, there are no viable workarounds to these guidelines. Even if you get a test immediately upon arrival at your destination and the results come back as negative the next day, Dr. Horney says this does not exempt you from having to self-quarantine. “The median incubation period seems to be around five and a half days, so we want to give people the chance to develop a virus at a level that would be identified on diagnostic tests [before testing them],” she says. Note Dr. Horney’s use of the word “median”—the virus will incubate for longer than that in some people, which is why you can’t just go out and get a test on day five and end your quarantine. According to research, about 97 percent of people infected will exhibit symptoms between 11-12 days, and 99 percent will do so within 14 days—hence the guidelines.

Traveling isn’t the only time you should self-quarantine either, says Dr. Horney. Of course, you should always self-quarantine if you find out that someone to whom you’ve been exposed has tested positive for COVID-19. Beyond this, however, there aren’t really any blanket guidelines. “All of this is so dependent on your personal circumstances, and on the level of community spread where you are,” she says. When trying to decide whether or not you should self-quarantine after an event, the question you should be asking yourself is how likely it is that you were exposed based on community spread where you are or were, and the choices made by yourself and those around you (did you keep distance and/or wear a mask?). “The CDC considers exposure to at least 15 minutes, less than six feet away,” says Dr. Horney.

For example, there may be a difference between having visited a bar while they were (briefly) open in Los Angeles, where community spread is high, and having visited one in another city where community spread is low. In the former situation, even though it was temporarily deemed okay to visit that bar, you may want to self-quarantine to be on the safe side.

Ultimately, Dr. Horney says it’s of the utmost importance that you pay attention to the level of transmission in your community when assessing the need for self-quarantine (outside of official restrictions). My hometown has instituted this handy risk meter to help citizens do just that, and you should follow your local leaders for similar updates.

As for the repercussions of failing to follow quarantine guidelines, well… quarantine measures are difficult to enforce, though New York City’s mayor Andrew Cuomo has announced some surveillance of those arriving at the airport and to hotels as well as hefty fines of up to $10,000 for offenses. As someone who lives in a state in crisis, however, I would suggest that the punishment for not quarantining is adding to further delays in returns to semi-normalcy nationwide—not to mention the possibility of infecting others, leading to serious injury and even death. And if you don’t want to or it’s not easy to self-quarantine wherever it is you’re traveling to, Dr. Horney’s advice is simple: stay home.

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