What you should know if you’ve been been asked to self-quarantine

MANHATTAN, NY – MARCH 5: Mount Sinai Health System hospital located in Manhattan, NY, holds personal protective equipment (PPE) refresher training course for staff on March 5th, 2020. These courses are being held at the hospital since the outbreak of the Coronavirus in January. Sharon Pulwer for The Washington Post)

You’ve stocked up on canned goods and bottled water. You made sure you have everything you’d need to spend 14 straight days in your home. You might have even picked a bingeable Netflix show.

Fears of coronavirus have confined thousands as a means of slowing the spread of the infectious virus. In New York alone, the Department of Health is keeping tabs on 2,773 residents stuck at home, the New York Times reported.

In total, coronavirus has infected nearly 100,000 people around the world and more than 200 in the United States.

As a result, people have begun prepping in case of a scenario where doctors tell them to stay put. Costco, Walmart and Target shoppers have cleared shelves of toilet paper, bagged rice and hand sanitizer.

But as coronavirus concerns spur restricted travel and quarantine, some questions are popping up about what it even means to be quarantined. Is everyone in quarantine infected? How does it work if you have roommates? Are you going to need the supplies you’re tossing into your shopping cart?

Q: What is a quarantine?

A: When someone is quarantined, that doesn’t mean they are infected with the coronavirus.

Quarantines are meant to restrict the movement of people who may have been exposed to the contagious disease but haven’t tested positive.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 14 days to see whether flu-like symptoms develop. The 14-day incubation period is based on what researchers know about the incubation period of MERS, which is in the same family as coronavirus.

Quarantine also doesn’t mean you can’t still live with your roommates or family. While the CDC recommends you keep to your own bedroom, wear a face mask around others and don’t share dishes, towels or bedding, you don’t need to move out.

Keeping your distance and washing your hands are the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus.

If you do share something while in quarantine, wash it thoroughly with soap and water.

The biggest lifestyle change in quarantine is the lack of mobility. The CDC recommends restricting activities outside your home, except when you need to go to the doctor.

“Do not go to work, school or public areas,” the CDC advises. “Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing or taxis.”

The concept isn’t new. Even as the bubonic plague rolled through Europe in the 17th century, at least one village instituted a quarantine, which ultimately saved neighboring villages.

The CDC has considered quarantines before in recent history. When the H1N1 pandemic broke out in 2009, it chose not to quarantine. But in this case, public health officials had advanced notice before the virus hit U.S. soil, Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told the Los Angeles Times.

“What was different about this one is that the outbreak was caught so early before it really got to the United States,” she said. “But this is a situation where hopefully because of improved global capacity and surveillance and lab capacity, it was caught early before it spread around the world and we had this window of time in which we could intervene to slow it down. I think that is different from other situations that we faced.”

Q: What is the difference between quarantine, isolation and social distancing?

A: Now that you better understand quarantine, it’s useful to know how it differs from isolation and social distancing, two terms being bandied about by experts in the past few months.

Isolation is separating those with confirmed infections from the population so they can get better without passing on the virus.

Social distancing comprises tactics people use to separate themselves from others and reduce their risk of infection. That can mean anything from avoiding crowded events to greeting friends with a nod instead of a smooch or embrace.

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo advised New Yorkers on Thursday to heed the advice of public health experts: Don’t shake hands or hug. But he acknowledged that changing your behavior can be a challenge.

“I’m of Italian American descent, I’m a hugger,” Cuomo said. “But precautions during the flu season, don’t shake hands and don’t hug. During this season with coronavirus, if you want to take precautions, don’t shake hands, don’t hug.”

Q: When should you self-quarantine?

A: The U.S. government is requiring evacuees from China’s Hubei province, a coronavirus hot spot, to undergo a 14-day quarantine. In addition, passengers exposed to the virus aboard the ill-fated Diamond Princess cruise ship were also quarantined.

Companies have also asked their employees to self-quarantine if they visit affected areas such as northern Italy.

Generally, experts recommend staying home if you have been in an area where the coronavirus has spread and you are experiencing symptoms.

If you aren’t sure if you should self-quarantine, ask a doctor.

Q: How do you prepare for a quarantine?

A: To be quarantined, you probably don’t need to go somewhere special. Most homes will do – although Seattle area officials bought a $4 million motel for patients they think may be special cases. But if you are in your home, make sure it is equipped with what you need for 14 days.

Firstly, and likely most importantly to some of us, let’s talk food. The best groceries are ones that don’t go bad: canned soup, rice and pasta are all easily available and simple to prepare.

However, Tom Cotter, the director of emergency response and preparedness at Project Hope, said it’s not just about what’s in your pantry.

“There’s been a lot of talk about stocking up on food, but also dog food, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, shampoo. It’s not necessarily because there might be stockouts or anything like that, it’s because you don’t want to leave your home and be around people,” Cotter told New York magazine.

Q: Do you have to self-quarantine if your employer asks you to? What about the government?

A: The Department of Health and Human Services, which the CDC falls under, has broad authority to quarantine or isolate anyone “reasonably believed” to have been exposed to communicable diseases, including cholera, smallpox and infectious tuberculosis.

This exceptional power is rooted in the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which allows Congress to regulate foreign and interstate commerce.

Further federal rulemaking has continued to strengthen that authority. For instance, a 2017 regulation says the government can quarantine people “as long as necessary to protect the public.”

“It’s like a curfew or an evacuation order if a natural disaster occurs. Just like when a hurricane is bearing down, people are ordered to leave coastal areas because no one can save them,” said Scott Burris, director of the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple University, told The Post. “If we have a reasonable prospect of stopping or slowing this virus, even if we’re doing it with mittens on, the government can take emergency action.”

As for your company, if you have an at-will employment agreement and want to keep your job, you should probably follow your employers’ travel restrictions, labor experts recommend. If you are a member of a union, you may have more protections.

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