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The 5 W’s of self-isolation and self-quarantine

March 24, 2020 • read

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The 5 W’s of self-isolation and self-quarantine

It seems like we’re hearing new coronavirus (COVID-19) advice every day. One thing that’s stayed fairly consistent though, are the terms self-isolate and self-quarantine. But what do they mean? And how do you do either if you’re living in a house with other people? We’re breaking down the 5 W’s — plus a few extra “hows” — to make sure you have all the facts. 

Who should self-isolate and who should self-quarantine?

While many people are using the terms “self-isolate” and “self-quarantine” interchangeably,  there’s one key difference. It comes down to whether you currently have symptoms of coronavirus. If you do have symptoms, you “self-isolate.” If you don’t have any COVID-19 symptoms, you “self-quarantine.”

Now that we have the definitions out of the way, you should self-quarantine if you’ve been exposed to coronavirus, either by coming in direct contact with a person who has been diagnosed, or if you’ve travelled in the last 14 days. 

If you’re actively presenting symptoms of COVID-19, you should self-isolate regardless of whether you can recall where you might have come into contact with coronavirus or not. If you have severe symptoms or are having difficulty breathing, call 911 immediately and be sure to tell the dispatcher that you believe you may have been exposed to coronavirus. 

P.S. if you’re not sure whether you have the symptoms of a cold or allergies versus coronavirus, we have a helpful guide for that here.

What are self-isolation and self-quarantine?

While they have two different names, self-isolation and self-quarantine are very much the same. Both mean limiting your interactions with other people to prevent potentially spreading the virus. 

This is very tricky if you’re living with other people, but here are a few basics to keep in mind:

  • Stay home. Don’t use public transit, taxis or ride shares, and don’t go to work, school or other public places.  
  • Don’t have visitors in your home and keep away from seniors and anyone with chronic health concerns such as diabetes, lung conditions, or a weakened immune system. These groups are at particular risk of becoming chronically ill from COVID-19. 
  • If possible, stay in a single room in your home. If you need to leave that room, wear a mask to limit the spread of particles if you cough.
  • Rigorously clean all surfaces. A two-step process is best for this. First, clean surfaces with household cleaners, then use a disinfecting cleanser or wipe. This ensures that the virus can’t hide from the disinfectant in everyday household dust and dirt. 
  • And of course, make sure that anyone who is in self-isolation or self-quarantine has lots of food and water to keep their immune system strong. To limit exposure, leave food outside the door and make sure each party only touches their side of the door to limit exposure. 

Why should people self-isolate or self-quarantine?

COVID-19 is highly contagious. And while the overall mortality rate is fairly low — about 2% — it’s highly dangerous to those with a weakened immune system and anyone over the age of 60. 

Adding to this is the fact that a continuous, dry cough is one of the key markers of coronavirus. Just like with the flu, when someone with coronavirus coughs, particles of the virus can travel up to 6 feet! Viruses can also live for several hours, or in some cases days, on surfaces. This makes it easy for people who aren’t infected to pick them up on their hands. 

This means it’s also important to limit the number of times you touch your face, and especially your eyes, nose and mouth. This goes for any viral outbreak, not just COVID-19.

Where can someone self-isolate or self-quarantine?

The best place to self-isolate or self-quarantine is in a room within your home. Ideally it would have its own bathroom as well to limit the number of times you need to leave the room, though that’s not always possible. 

If you’re in self-isolation or self-quarantine and you share common areas with others in your home, ensure you minimize the time spent outside of your dedicated isolation or quarantine room and always wear a mask while in common areas. 

For those living in the common areas, wash your hands frequently, ensuring you pay close attention to the pads of your fingers and in between your fingers. 

It’s also best to clean the surfaces in your home frequently. Again, a two-step process is best for this. First, clean surfaces with household cleaners, then use a disinfecting cleaner. This ensures that the virus can’t hide from the disinfectant in everyday household dust and dirt. 

When can someone stop self-isolation or self-quarantine?

If you’re in self-isolation, you should confirm with a public health or a healthcare provider to determine when you can safely end your self-isolation. This is due to conflicting reports on how long the virus can last in your body after you stop experiencing symptoms.

You should stay in self-quarantine for at least 14 days from the time you were potentially exposed to COVID-19. If you still don’t have any symptoms after 14 days, evidence to date (March 20) suggests you can safely end your self-quarantine. This is because it’s believed that it can take up to 14 days for COVID-19 symptoms to appear. 

When should you speak with a doctor?

If you’re having trouble breathing or experiencing other severe symptoms, you should call 911. Be sure to tell the dispatcher that you may have COVID-19 to ensure that paramedics arrive at your home with the proper gear to protect everyone involved. 

If you’re not experiencing emergency symptoms, you should talk to a doctor before self-diagnosing. Symptoms may appear differently in different people. Rather than heading straight to the doctor’s office or ER, contact your local health unit to find out the best course of action for being screened for coronavirus.

If you have a non-urgent medical need such as a prescription refill, or questions about COVID-19, our doctors are available online 24/7, 365 days a year from wherever you are to help address your needs. 

Talk to a doctor online.

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