More than a million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and many, many more have had a suspected case of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, without having access to a test to confirm the cause of their symptoms. As parts of the country begin to reopen — even as new cases continue to climb in some states — it's more important than ever to take steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should you be exposed or develop symptoms.
What does it mean to be exposed, exactly? "Exposure to COVID-19 means you were within six feet — for over 10 minutes, without protective equipment — of a person who had known COVID-19 disease or developed symptoms of it within the next two days," explained David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Centre in Santa Monica, CA. "The consequences of exposure are that you should quarantine and self-monitor." While the word "quarantine" has been thrown around a lot, it actually has a very specific meaning: you're separating yourself until you're certain that you're not going to get sick.
"Quarantine means you stay home," Dr. Cutler told POPSUGAR. "There are no visitors and you maintain separation from others in your home." You should do this for 14 days, watching for any signs that you've been infected. "Take your temperature twice daily and observe for symptoms of cough or shortness of breath," he said.
If you do show symptoms of COVID-19 — whether or not you've had a known exposure to the virus — you should call your doctor and step up your efforts to isolate yourself from others. "That means sleeping in a separate bedroom, using a separate bathroom [if possible], and wearing a mask if around others. Don't share your utensils or prepare food for others," Dr. Cutler explained. Instead, have your roommates, partner, or family leave food and other essentials at the door, staying at least six feet from anyone if you ever are in the same space.
While you're sick, only leave your home to seek medical care. Call the doctor's office ahead of time, and be sure to wear a mask when you go out.
How Long Should I Isolate After Having COVID-19?
"If you're recovering from COVID, you should isolate yourself and have no contact with other humans, including family, roommates, and housemates, until seven days have passed from the time you first started feeling ill, and 72 hours have passed since your last fever, and your cough and/or shortness of breath has improved," Spencer Blackman, MD, a primary care physician at One Medical, told POPSUGAR.
In other words, even if your symptoms have resolved in under a week, you should remain in isolation for at least that length of time — and if they linger longer, stay put for as long as it takes to meet the other criteria. (Note that your fever should be controlled for three days without the use of a fever reducer.) Staying apart from others when you're sick can feel lonely, but it's the best thing you can do to protect those you care about most.