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So You’re In Quarantine. Now What?

Self-quarantine and social distancing are proven to slow down the spread of deadly disease. They’re also a complete disruption to life as you know it.

A Houston Public Media reporter works while under self-quarantine.
File Photo
A Houston Public Media reporter works while under self-quarantine.

The use of social distancing and quarantine to slow the spread of disease has been around since the middle ages. And medical experts say, even today, it's an effective tool during a pandemic.

Even if only a few people test positive for COVID-19 in your community, hundreds may be under self-quarantine if they came into contact with one of the people who tested positive.

But there's a lot of confusion over what exactly self-quarantine is and what it entails.

First off, it's different from isolation, which means separating a sick person from those who aren't sick. It's also different from "social distancing," which means avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining a 6-foot distance from others when possible.

So what is quarantine and why does it matter?

Self-quarantine is for people who are exposed to someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, but may not have the disease or even be exhibiting symptoms.

It could take as long as weeks for signs of the disease to show up.

Self-quarantine and social distancing are all part of slowing down the spread of COVID-19 and preventing it from spiking in a short period of time. Epidemiologists call it "flattening the curve," and it helps prevent hospitals and health care facilities from becoming overburdened.

What about the people I live with?

If you live with other people, you need to take extra precautions to keep the house clean and ensure they don't get sick.

There's been some discrepancy from health departments across the U.S. over what precautions you need to take and who exactly needs to self-quarantine. But health officials generally recommend taking the following steps:

  • Separate yourself from the other people in your home. Keep a minimum distance of 6 feet between you and other people.
  • Experts also say to limit your contact with pets and animals. Though pets aren't currently believed to transmit the disease, the CDC recommends limiting contact until more is known about the virus. There was one reported instance of a dog being infected with COVID-19 in Hong Kong.
  • Wash your hands often. This advice applies to everyone, even if you aren't in self-quarantine. Use soap and water and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid sharing personal household items, such as dishes, cups, utensils, towels and bedding.
  • Clean all "high-touch" surfaces daily. This includes counters, tabletops, doorknobs, phones, keyboards and bedside tables.

How long should I stay in quarantine?

Many health experts suggest a 14-day quarantine, which would start after the last day you were potentially exposed to the virus, due to its incubation period. An incubation period is the time between catching the virus and when you start to show symptoms of the disease.

Although people commonly show symptoms for COVID-19 around the five-day mark, the incubation period is estimated to be between one and 14 days, according to the World Health Organization. Though experts recommend self quarantining for 14 days, it's best to check in with your doctor or health care provider before stopping your quarantine.

What if I get a cough or fever while in quarantine?

It's important to be in touch with your primary care doctor while in quarantine. Even if you're not showing symptoms, keep them informed about what your exposure to COVID-19 may have been and ask for their recommendations.

Monitor your symptoms, by checking your temperature daily and watching for signs of a cough or difficulty breathing. If you do present symptoms of the novel coronavirus, contact your health care provider immediately. You should not go to the hospital, or leave quarantine unless you're given specific instructions by a health care professional.

What about food and medications?

If you have to go into quarantine and haven't had time to stock up on food, fear not, there are lots of options.

Many grocery stores, such as H-E-B, offer home delivery services. Just make sure that you don't come into direct contact with the delivery person — maintaining a 6-foot distance still applies. Under delivery instructions, you can leave a note asking that they drop off the groceries on your doorstep. The same goes for food delivery services, such as UberEats or GrubHub. Some delivery services like Instacart and Favor have recently added a "leave at my doorstep" delivery option.

In terms of medication, officials recommend keeping a two-week supply on hand if possible. However, if you have to quarantine before you've had time to stock up, pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens offer prescription delivery. Both pharmacies have announced they'll waive delivery fees for prescriptions during the pandemic.

For those who may need assistance, local nonprofits, like the Houston Food Bank, Meals on Wheels and ECHOS, offer various options. The Houston Food Bank is assembling food kits for people who may need to be in quarantine and don't have the resources at home, while Meals on Wheels is delivering a week's worth of shelf-stable food to the homebound seniors they serve.

We usually make this distribution prior to hurricane season, in case a storm keeps our drivers from making deliveries, but we’ve moved up that distribution to the month of March,” said Maria Magee, the Chief Development Officer at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, which runs the Meals on Wheels program. ECHOS is also assembling Preparedness Packs for families in need.

How do I stay mentally and physically healthy?

Isolation and uncertainty due to quarantine can cause stress, depression, and in extreme cases, suicide.

A medical review of several different studies found people quarantined to experience "emotional disturbance, depression, stress, low mood, irritability, insomnia, post-traumatic stress symptoms, anger and emotional exhaustion”.

To curb the negative effects of quarantine, a few different factors are known to help.

  • Limit the length of quarantine, and only stay isolated as long as you have to.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating well and exercising.
  • Make sure you have the food and supplies you need to be comfortable.
  • Stay connected with family and friends through phone, email and other forms of virtual communication.
  • If frequent news consumption makes you feel overwhelmed, set limits to how much time each day you spend consuming news.

Do I need to clean up after quarantine?

You should be regularly cleaning during your quarantine so there's not much difference when it ends. The CDC recommends cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces on a daily basis. Whereas cleaning removes germs and dirt from surfaces, disinfecting actually kills the germs. The CDC recommends first cleaning with soap and water and then disinfecting with bleach or alcohol solutions.

Here's the full list of EPA-approved disinfecting products that are expected to be effective against COVID-19. Researchers aren't sure yet exactly how long the novel coronavirus can remain on surfaces, but it's believed to stay for hours or even days.