Social Distancing, Quarantine, and Isolation

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 05, 2022
8 min read

Quarantine is for people who don’t have symptoms but who might have been exposed to the coronavirus. The idea is to keep you from unknowingly infecting others.

Self-quarantine is usually voluntary. But the federal or state government may legally require you to do it.

Anyone who’s been in close contact with a person who has COVID-19 should self-quarantine, even if you’ve had the virus before.

“Close contact” means you did one or more of these things:

  • Were within 6 feet of the person for at least 15 minutes
  • Cared for the person at home
  • Touched, hugged, or kissed them
  • Shared eating or drinking utensils with them
  • Got droplets on you when they sneezed or coughed

According to the CDC, you’ll need to quarantine if:

  • You’re 18 or older and have completed the primary series of recommended vaccine. But, you have not received a recommended booster shot after you became eligible.
  • You received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine over 2 months ago but haven’t received the recommended booster shot.
  • You’re not vaccinated or haven’t yet completed your first full round of vaccines.

You don’t need to quarantine if:

  • You’re 18 or older and have received all recommended vaccine doses, including boosters and additional shots recommended for immunocompromised people.
  • You’re 5-17 years old and completed the primary series of COVID-19 vaccines.
  • You had COVID-19 within the last 90 days. This should have been confirmed using a viral test.

However, if you were exposed to someone who tested positive, wear a well-fitting mask around others for 10 days after exposure.

To quarantine, you may:

  • Stay home except in case of emergency.
  • Avoid visitors, especially if they’re at higher risk of severe illness.
  • Watch for COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. If you get them, ask your doctor about getting tested for COVID-19.

If you’ve come in contact with someone who has a positive COVID-19 case, you’ll need to follow different quarantine guidelines based on your vaccination status.

For those who’ve had their booster shot, their Pfizer or Moderna vaccine within the last 6 months, or their J&J vaccine within the last 2 months:

  • Wear a properly fitted mask around other people for 10 days
  • Take a COVID-19 test on the fifth day after exposure
  • If you develop symptoms, stay home

If you haven’t had your COVID-19 vaccine, took your Pfizer or Moderna vaccine over 6 months ago and haven’t had the booster shot, or had your J&J vaccine over 2 months ago and haven’t had your booster:

  • Stay at home for 5 days and wear a mask around other people for an extra 5 days after your quarantine
  • If it’s not possible for you to quarantine, where a mask around others for 10 days
  • Take a COVID-19 test on the fifth day of your quarantine

For quarantine after exposure, the CDC recommends:

  • Stay home and away from other people for at least 5 days after your last contact with a person who has COVID-19. Wear a well-fitting mask when around others at home.
  • For 10 days after your last close contact with someone with COVID-19, watch for fever (100.4 F or higher), cough, shortness of breath, or other COVID-19 symptoms.
  • If you develop symptoms, get tested immediately and isolate until you receive your results. If you test positive, follow isolation recommendations below.
  • If you don’t develop symptoms, get tested at least 5 days after you last had close contact with someone with COVID-19. If you test negative, you can leave your home, but continue to wear a mask around others at home and in public until 10 days after your last exposure.
  • If you test positive, you should isolate for at least 5 days from the date of your positive test if you don’t have symptoms. If you do develop COVID-19 symptoms, isolate for at least 5 days from the date your symptoms began. Refer to the isolation guidelines below.

Quarantines for the new coronavirus last 5 days because that’s how long it takes to know if you have the virus. After that, if you have no symptoms, your quarantine is over.

For example:

  • If you have close contact with a co-worker, neighbor, or friend with COVID-19 at noon on the first of the month, your quarantine would end at noon on the 6th.
  • If the ill person lives with you, they should stay in a separate bedroom, and you should avoid close contact with them for 5 days.
  • If you have contact with a sick person while you’re quarantined, start the 5 days over.
  • If you live with the person and can’t avoid close contact, stay home while they’re sick. Quarantine for 5 days after they meet the CDC criteria to end home isolation:
    • 10 days since symptoms began
    • 24 hours with no fever and no fever-reducing medication
    • Symptoms have gotten better

If you’re vaccinated, it’s best to get tested 5-7 days after you’ve come in close contact with an infected person. But if you haven’t had your first round of shots, get tested immediately. If you notice COVID-19 symptoms, get tested as soon as possible regardless of your vaccine status. Isolate in the meantime.

If you test positive, follow isolation recommendations. Let others you’ve come in contact with know about the infection. This will help them take proper steps to protect themselves and others.

Isolation is a health care term. It means separating people who are contagious from people who aren’t. If you have COVID-19, you’ll be isolated because you may infect others. There are two types of isolation:

  • Medical isolation. At hospitals, health care centers, and prisons, the staff separates people who are infected from people who aren’t. Staff members wear equipment like masks, gloves, and face shields to protect themselves and prevent spreading the virus.
  • Self-isolation. You'll be advised to self-isolate if you test positive for COVID-19 or if you have symptoms like coughing and fever but don’t need to be hospitalized. Self-isolation is usually voluntary. But public health agencies may legally require you to do it. If you have COVID-19, regardless of your vaccination status, you should self-isolate for 5 days and wear your mask around other people for an extra 5 days after. If you don’t show any symptoms or they’re going away after 5 days of isolation, it’s OK to leave your house.

If you need to isolate:

  • Stay home unless it’s an emergency or you need medical care.
  • If you can, stay in a separate room from others in your household and use a separate bathroom.
  • If that's not possible, or you need to leave your space, keep 6 feet away from others.
  • Wear a mask when you have contact with others in your household.
  • Have food and other essential items delivered to your door.
  • Others in your household should leave home only if necessary, and take steps to avoid infecting other people.
  • If you need care, one member of your household should be designated as caregiver.
  • If you tested positive but weren't sick, be on the alert for signs of illness. If you get them, call your doctor.

During an outbreak, the government may issue a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order to slow the spread of infection. Businesses considered essential, like grocery stores, health providers, and banks, may be open, while nonessential ones like bars and amusement parks are closed.

You’ll stay home except for necessary activities like doctor visits, grocery shopping, and certain jobs.

If you have stay-at-home orders, you may:

  • Leave home only to do things like shop for groceries, go to the doctor, care for a family member, exercise, or walk your dog.
  • Travel only if it’s considered “essential travel.”
  • Go to work only if your job is considered essential work.
  • Follow social distancing rules when you’re not home.

Don't go to work if you feel sick. If you have a higher risk of complications from COVID-19, stay home as much as possible, except when you need medical care.

Stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders are often thought to be the same thing. But shelter-in-place may be more restrictive. It’s a term traditionally used in emergency situations that require you to stay in a building, room, or vehicle until you’re given more information.

Rules may vary based on where you live and the orders that are in place.

Get medical help right away if you have severe symptoms such as:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Lasting pain or pressure in your chest
  • Confusion
  • Trouble waking up or staying awake
  • Blue lips or face

If it’s an emergency, call 911 or head to the nearest hospital for medical attention.

Social distancing, or physical distancing, means limiting close contact with people you don’t live with, both indoors and outdoors. It’s one of the best tools we have to prevent the spread of COVID-19, even if you have been vaccinated.

Social distancing is one of the types of distancing that government officials recommend during a widespread outbreak of a disease. Others are quarantine, isolation, and shelter-in-place or stay-at-home.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads when people are in close contact. When someone who’s infected sneezes, coughs, or talks, it spreads droplets into the air. These tiny drops may infect others by getting into their lungs. It can happen even when the person who’s infected doesn’t have any symptoms or before their symptoms begin.

Keeping a safe distance helps you stay healthy and reduces the spread of the virus. When lots of people do it, this also helps the health care system be ready for patients who need care.

During social distancing, stay home when possible and limit gatherings. When you do need to go out:

  • Stay at least 6 feet away from others.
  • Wear a cloth face covering.
  • Avoid public transportation.
  • Don't go to crowded places like shopping malls, movie theaters, and stadiums.

To make social distancing easier, you may:

  • Work from home.
  • Use distance learning instead of attending classes in person
  • Limit or cancel meetings and travel plans.
  • Gather with friends and family on video platforms like Zoom or FaceTime instead of in person.
  • Get your groceries delivered or ask someone to pick them up for you.
  • Order your prescriptions by mail.

While you're social distancing, be sure to take other steps to protect yourself and the people around you:

  • Wash your hands well and often.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, mouth, or nose.
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Don't share dishes, towels, or bedding, and wash these items often.
  • Often clean surfaces in your home, like counters and bathroom fixtures.

Everyone should practice social distancing as much as possible during the pandemic. Rules may vary based on where you live. Check with local authorities to find out what’s OK and what’s not.

Social distancing is especially important for people who have a higher risk of illness from COVID-19.

While people of all ages are vulnerable to COVID-19, your chances of severe illness go up with age. Someone who’s in their 50s is more likely to become seriously ill with COVID-19 than someone in their 40s, and so on. The highest risk is among people 85 and older.

Some other health conditions also make severe illness more likely:

Research shows that people who have these conditions might be at higher risk from COVID-19: