You may have been asked to “work from home” for now, or to prepare to “self quarantine” if you may have been exposed to COVID-19. But there’s some confusion over what this involves. Can you work from a cafe? Walk the dog?
First, let’s be clear about some definitions:
Quarantine is for people who might have a disease, but don’t know yet. If you’ve been asked to “stay home and monitor for symptoms,” that’s self-quarantine.
Isolation is for people who do have the disease. If you’re coughing and feverish, and you have reason to believe you have COVID-19, this is you. You may be in “self-isolation” (or you may end up in isolation in a hospital) and you’re going to be very careful about where you cough.
Quarantine can turn into isolation if you become sick, so these concepts are related but they are not quite the same. And if you’re simply working from home, that’s a different level entirely. Let’s look at a few scenarios.
If your school or workplace has asked everyone to stay home
If you’ve been asked to work from home or if your school has switched to online lessons, the point is to eliminate that school or workplace as a potential hub for contracting the virus. In this case I’m assuming you haven’t personally been exposed to the virus (that you know of), it’s just a precaution.
This is not quarantine or isolation, it’s just reducing your risk of being a link in a chain of transmission. In this case there are no strict rules, but it would be smart to avoid other gathering places. This means you probably should not be working from a busy cafe.
It sucks because a lot of work-from-home advice (including ours) involves mental health tips like: Get out of the house! Have lunch with a friend! Work out on your lunch break! Unfortunately, if these activities take you to busy places, you should probably minimise them.
That doesn’t mean you have to avoid public places entirely, but limit your outings. I have lunch out less often than I used to. I go to the gym at times that are less busy, and I make sure to wash my hands afterward.
If you may have been exposed to the virus
If a public health official has reached out to you because you were in contact with someone who has the virus, follow their instructions. Make sure to ask questions about what you can and cannot do; their information will be more helpful and current than whatever I tell you here.
If you have returned from travel to a high-risk location, or if you have otherwise been advised to stay at home and monitor for symptoms, it’s time to self quarantine.
The idea of quarantine is specifically to stay away from other people. You want to avoid anything where you might accidentally breathe in people’s faces, or touch surfaces that others will touch. If you can stay six feet away from other human beings, you’re fine to do things like:
Walk the dog
Do yard work
Go for a run
You can still walk the dog, and frankly running to the store for items is probably fine, unless you're feeling suuuper sick, in which case try to have someone do those things for you. Wipe down surfaces in your house frequently, make sure to wash your hands, etc.
— Emily Ricotta, PhD ???????????????????? (@Iplaywithgerms) March 11, 2020
In this case you should definitely avoid working at cafes, eating at restaurants going to work or school, to events or parties, and it’s probably best if you don’t go shopping or run errands; get somebody to do that for you. And don’t host any gatherings, either. Bringing your friends to you is a clever idea but defeats the point.
If you know you’re sick
If you’re sick with COVID-19 (or with an infection that you’re assuming is COVID-19) you’re not in quarantine but in isolation. The idea is the same—to avoid people—but this time you know you’re sick. This means you’ll be even more vigilant about the possibility for transmitting disease within your home.
The U.S. CDC has guidance for households with a sick person, including instructions for the sick person to wear a mask if possible, and to use a separate bedroom and bathroom from other members of the household if you’re able to arrange that. You’ll also want to clean surfaces often.
How to prepare for a quarantine
You don’t need a million rolls of toilet paper, nor do you need a bunker full of supplies for the apocalypse. Preparing for a possible future quarantine just means that you won’t have trouble staying home for a few days.
As Lisa writes in our guide on how to stock up, appropriate supplies include a few extra days’ worth of whatever you would normally buy. You need soap for hand washing, groceries that will last a while (think freezer meals, not necessarily dried beans), and any medical or health related supplies that you routinely need or that you might need when you’re sick, like tissues.