Quarantine vs. Isolation

Quarantining and isolating. Before the pandemic, these words were used basically interchangeably. Now, the stakes are higher. What’s the difference between quarantine and self-isolation in a technical sense?

Quarantine vs. isolation: definition and key differences

In a general sense, both strictly within the world of COVID and outside of it, the difference between quarantine and isolation can be defined as follows:

  • Isolation prevents healthy people from contracting a virus from somebody who is infected.
  • Quarantine is a large-scale effort used when it’s not completely clear whether or not a group of people is actually infected, and who among them has contracted a virus.

Quarantining has fallen into popular use most recently thanks to COVID-19 and its ability to infect individuals on an asymptomatic basis—that is, some people who are fully contagious may not necessarily present symptoms, but they can still spread the virus to others without knowing it.

The difference is fairly subtle, but still an important distinction to make. How do these differences play into good etiquette and social hygiene as they relate to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Other differences between isolation and quarantine

People who are actually sick with the coronavirus isolate themselves; those who have simply been exposed quarantine. The main difference between isolation and quarantine is your degree of certainty, followed by the degree of separation that you eventually commit to.

The CDC has modified its isolation and quarantine guidelines a couple of times throughout the worst of the pandemic, with the newest update dialing all related provisions back slightly.

In a general sense, though, those who have received a full round of vaccination will usually be asked to isolate if they test positive. The unvaccinated, conversely, are generally asked to quarantine, often for a slightly longer period of time and with at least one COVID test somewhere around five days in.

Quarantine and isolation protect us all

COVID-19 isn’t the first communicable disease to warrant isolation and quarantining on an individual basis—cholera, smallpox, and leprosy have all historically been contained through these public health services, even before the advent of modern medicine.

The underlying principle is simple: fewer people get sick when those who have already contracted the disease wait it out at home. It’s one of the easiest and most effective ways that you can protect your community, as well as those immediately around you.

Still have questions?

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