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How to Self-Quarantine

Elaine K. Howley

By now, news of the ever-expanding coronavirus pandemic is inescapable. And while the sometimes-scary updates keep coming, you're probably hearing a lot about self-quarantine. This may be a new term for a lot of people, so what exactly is it, and how should you go about self-quarantining?

What Is Self-Quarantine?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends isolation and quarantine measures to help protect the public in times of a public health crisis and outbreak of communicable disease such a cholera, diphtheria, plague, smallpox, tuberculosis and a variety of other diseases that can cause epidemic and pandemic infections.

"Quarantine in general means the separation of a person or group of people, who is reasonably believed to have been exposed to a communicable disease but not yet symptomatic," says Dr. George A. Diaz, chief of infectious diseases at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett in Washington. He treated patient zero in the U.S. coronavirus pandemic.

By removing the potentially exposed people from others who have not been so exposed, he says, you're able to prevent the possible spread of the communicable disease.

"In the case of COVID-19, quarantine is for 14 days from the last date of exposure," Diaz says. "If no symptoms are present after the 14-day quarantine, the person is not considered a risk for spreading the virus to others."

[READ: Coronavirus: What to Stock up on So You're Prepared.]

What Does Self-Quarantine Entail?

Quarantine can be a voluntary action or mandated by a health organization of the government. The term self-quarantine describes voluntary isolation from others and is just one of several that describe different degrees of separation from others to help control the spread of infectious diseases.

In the context of the current coronavirus crisis, "self-quarantine means staying at home except to seek medical care," says Dr. Manish Trivedi, director of the division of infectious diseases with AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in New Jersey.

Self-quarantine is a more intensive form of excluding yourself from interaction with others than social distancing -- which means reducing contact with others and staying at least 6 feet away when you do come into contact with people.

In addition to removing yourself from circulating freely in your community, self-quarantine also entails regularly engaging in infection-preventing hygiene practices. There are some "dos and don'ts" to this, Trivedi says.

Don't:

-- Don't invite visitors or friends into your home.

-- Don't leave your home unless absolutely necessary.

-- Don't share utensils and other household items with others in the home.

Do:

-- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water and use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if you don't have easy access to soap and water.

-- Disinfect surface areas daily, including electronics -- especially phones, laptops and other devices.

-- Wash utensils and other items thoroughly.

-- Avoid others in the household as best you can.

-- Keep your hands away from your face.

-- Practice all other prevention tips the CDC recommends, including covering your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your sleeve and immediately throwing the tissue into the trash.

[SEE: Coronavirus Prevention Steps That Do or Do Not Work.]

Who Should Self-Quarantine?

Self-quarantine is an appropriate response for people who are well and who might have been exposed to a communicable disease, Trivedi says. "This is different from isolation, which is separating people who are known to be ill with a communicable disease from those who are healthy."

"People who are considered 'medium risk' -- that is, anyone who has traveled in the past two weeks with widespread transmission as designated by the CDC or anyone who has been in close contact with someone showing symptoms of COVID-19 -- should contact your healthcare provider for direction about what steps and precautions to take," Trivedi says.

Right now, in most parts of the U.S., quarantine is still a voluntary act, but given that cases of infection are expected to spike, we may soon be headed for mandated quarantine or isolation measures. Mandated quarantine has helped some other countries gain the upper hand on the virus.

For example, in late January, the Chinese government issued a lockdown order for Wuhan, a major city of 11 million people in central China where the virus is thought to have originated. Though draconian in nature, that enforced isolation has been widely credited with enabling China to regain control over the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

On March 18, the Chinese government reported a day with no new cases of COVID-19 and thus began lifting some of the restrictions on individual freedoms.

The first region to experience such restrictions in the U.S. is San Francisco and surrounding Bay-Area communities, which are under a "shelter-in-place" order through at least April 7. Only "essential" businesses can remain open, and only their essential employees are to report to work.

Chunhuei Chi, a professor in the global health program at Oregon State University, says that more restrictive lockdowns could be on the horizon in the hardest hit areas. "We have to prepare for a worst-case scenario," so be prepared that you may need to make some short-term sacrifices to help curb this pandemic.

Do I Need to Worry About My Pets?

Diaz says that "at this point there is no evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19. When a public health professional is notified of a pet in the home of a person with COVID-19, they should notify the state public health veterinarian or other designated animal health professional."

However, this is a rapidly evolving area. Chi says that while there's little evidence that you can get the coronavirus from your pet, the virus could theoretically be able to survive on a pet's fur for a period of time. So, while your pet is very unlikely to get sick, there's a remote possibility that the animal could transfer virus to you through touch.

What Do I Do in Quarantine?

If you're stuck inside during this pandemic, it's important that you maintain as much structure and routine as you can to help keep your anxiety levels lower. If working from home is an option, that can help take your mind off things. Regular physical exercise, meditation and yoga can also help make being cooped up indoors a little easier to cope with. "If you have access to open space, such as a park, and the weather is good, get some sunshine and exercise," Chi advises. Just be sure to keep a distance of at least 6 feet from other people.

Still, for many folks, being cooped up all day in a high-anxiety situation such as this can be mentally exhausting. Therefore, "it's important to keep your spirits up and find ways to combat boredom," Trivedi says. " Talk with your children with reassuring language. Talk with your family members about how they're feeling. Think about how your family has dealt with difficult situations in the past and how you've gotten through it. And remember -- quarantine is only temporary."

You should also seek to maintain contact with friends and other family members who aren't with you in the home by phone, video or texting. Mobile technology platforms now make it easier to arrange online group hangouts and chats that can feel a bit like going out for lunch with a group, without the risk of exposure.

You should also limit your intake of information, especially via social media during these uncertain times, Trivedi says. "Avoid getting caught up in rumors and misinformation. Seek reliable sources of information, including your healthcare provider and the CDC. Refrain from forwarding or otherwise contributing to rumors and misinformation on social media. Doing so is not helpful to the community or to healthcare providers, and it can be dangerous."

If you're experiencing cabin fever, a number of cultural and educational intuitions have made their materials freely accessible online for virtual tours. Google Arts & Culture has created a map of sites from around the world that links to many collections of art and cultural collections.

What Else Do I Need to Consider?

In addition to cutting out all non-essential travel and activities outside of your home, you might also want to consider other ways that you could come into contact with the virus. Chi notes that in Taiwan, "which has been regarded as setting the gold standard" in responding to the crisis, "they also quarantined the luggage" of people who were returning from China and other places where exposure had been likely. This is because the virus can survive on surfaces for a period of time -- a study released last week found that period to be three days on steel and plastic.

When you're out and about, take care not to touch surfaces unnecessarily, and "assume every surface you touch is infected," Chi says. Bring tissues or gloves to protect yourself when using doorknobs and handles, and wash your hands after touching surfaces.

Similarly, "my advice is that when you return home, change your outdoor clothes for indoor clothes, and leave your outdoor shoes outside," Chi says.

This way, if your clothing or shoes have picked up any virus, it will be contained and less likely to spread to other areas of your home. Chi recommends you should wash your hands as soon as you come home, and while you're at it, wash the clothes you've worn in public to further limit the risk of contaminating your home or infecting others.

He also shares a tip for those who must use elevators regularly. "Many Hong Kong residents began carrying a simple, cheap ballpoint pen with a cap so that anytime they need to touch an elevator button, they take the cap off the pen and use the tip of the pen to depress the button. Then they put the cap back on," and if any virus transferred from the button the pen, it is contained within the cap. Clean the pen when you get home.

[SEE: Flu vs. the Common Cold: Symptoms and Treatment.]

What Happens If I Develop Symptoms?

If you or a loved one or roommate starts to show symptoms of the virus, "the person showing symptoms should isolate themselves by staying in a specific room and away from other people in the home," Diaz says. "Also, they should use a separate bathroom, if available."

If you have to be in contact with others, either at home or work, and aren't feeling well, wear a face mask to reduce the chances of passing the virus on to others.

Chi adds that if you do start to feel unwell, your first call should be to a health care provider. Instead of just turning up at the doctor's office or emergency room -- where you're likely to spread the virus to others -- pick up the phone and ask for guidance.

The more you can separate a sick person from those who aren't infected, the better, even within the home, particularly if you live with an older adult or someone with a chronic medical condition such as heart disease, lung disease or diabetes.

"Ill people should avoid sharing personal items with other people in their household, like dishes, towels and bedding," Diaz says. Clean all frequently-touched surfaces, such as countertops, doorknobs and light switches with a disinfecting spray, a diluted bleach solution or alcohol-based cleaner. Chi says that hydrogen peroxide also renders the virus inactive and can be used as a disinfectant.

Call your primary care or pediatric provider for direction if you have flu-like symptoms, including:

-- Fever.

-- Cough.

-- Shortness of breath.

-- Sore throat.

-- Runny or stuffy nose.

-- Muscle or body aches.

-- Headaches.

-- Fatigue.

-- Vomiting and diarrhea.

And Trivedi adds that you should let your provider know when to expect you, so they can be prepared. "Please call ahead to let the facility know why and when you are coming. When you arrive, request a mask immediately. This will help you avoid spreading any illness to others in the waiting room."

Diaz also cautions that it's important to stay calm and take care of yourself during these turbulent times. "Get plenty of sleep, drink fluids, and if your condition worsens, call your provider right away."

Though there's currently no vaccine or cure for COVID-19, he says it's important to "remember that the majority of people who do get COVID-19 do recover."



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