What A Coronavirus Quarantine In The U.S. Is Actually Like

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A woman inside her bedroom opens curtains. What is a coronavirus quarantine in the US like? We spoke...
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This post is updated regularly to reflect the latest news and science around coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

Thousands of people across the United States are under quarantine as a precaution after traveling to high-risk places or coming into contact with someone who's been diagnosed with COVID-2019. On Feb. 2, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued mandatory quarantine guidelines for travelers returning from Hubei province, where the virus originated. For those who may have been exposed to it in other parts of the world, though, local officials, schools or employers recommend voluntary self-quarantine, where people stay at home and limit physical contact with others, but aren’t legally obligated to, for 14 days.

Who Should Self-Quarantine?

Not sure if you're someone who should self-quarantine? As of March 7, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a self-quarantine for those who are at high- and medium-risk of coronavirus exposure. High-risk folks include those who've traveled to Hubei, or those who live with (or were intimate with) someone who has the infection and hasn't been taking proper recommended measures, like home isolation, consistently. Medium-risk people includes those who've been to a country with widespread sustained transmission, other than China or Iran, those who've been in close contact with someone who has a confirmed COVID-19 infection, and those who live with (or were intimate with) someone who has coronavirus and has been taking proper precautions consistently.

How Does A Coronavirus Self-Quarantine Work?

While staying at home for two weeks — more on that timeframe below — can be boring and frustrating, one woman currently in self-quarantine after a trip to Italy tells Bustle it’s a small price to pay to ensure the safety of her family and others.

Two weeks before Italy announced a 14-day nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-2019, Anna* was in northern Italy with her husband for a weeklong vacation; they left after two days. “In Florence, up until Tuesday morning, it was like nothing was happening,” Anna says. “No one was wearing masks. There were no signs. There was nothing.” They cut their trip short when the number of cases in the country rose 25% overnight, reaching over 650 as of Feb. 27. Anna says they chose to return home out of fear that the surge in Italy might lead to travel restrictions.

“The overwhelming emotion that I have right now is just gratitude,” Anna, 31, tells Bustle. “I’m really lucky to be home.”

Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a pediatrician and assistant professor at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, has dealt with several infectious disease scares through her work on immigrant health. “When you put someone in quarantine,” she says, “that is someone who may have been exposed to an illness, who is healthy, but just watching to see if they develop symptoms.”

Self-quarantining can be effective at preventing a virus from spreading without the federal government enforcing strict legal action, but the rules aren’t hard and fast. Anna and her husband’s employers gave them the general recommendation to stay home for 14 days to ensure they don’t show symptoms before returning to work, but Anna — who’d been home for only a day when she spoke with Bustle — is unsure what their self-quarantine will look like. “It’s just a big question mark,” she says. “We don’t know how we’re planning to proceed at this point.”

Most people in her and her husband’s lives have been understanding. Anna’s been able to work from home, because her employer initiated the self-quarantine request. She and her husband recently moved to a house with a backyard, so Anna says she doesn’t yet feel boxed in. She also says that, assuming she and her husband don’t develop symptoms over the next few days, she’ll feel comfortable walking her dog along a nearby beach, where she’s unlikely to come in contact with others. Anna says a relative who works for the Centers for Disease Control told her quick trips to the supermarket are probably safe. Still, she wants to make sure she’s as thoughtful and cautious as possible, being considerate of people with compromised immune systems, and feels lucky she can afford grocery delivery if necessary.

Anna also says she has peace of mind knowing the virus isn’t as dangerous for people in her demographic. Right now, researchers believe those with compromised immune systems and medical professionals working on the frontlines of the outbreak face the greatest risk. Healthy adults and children who don’t have any underlying risk factors may show mild or limited symptoms, if any.

So far, she says the experience hasn’t made her more afraid of getting sick, but rather grateful that they were able to get home quickly. “Has it crossed my mind that I could have the virus? Yes.” she says. “Do I realistically think that I’ve been exposed to it? I don’t.”

Why The Coronavirus Quarantine Time Period Is 14 Days

For people who have returned from a place where coronavirus is clustered, a 14-day quarantine is required by DHS, as symptoms of infection are expected to show up within that period. After that time frame, DHS said they may conduct health checks on cases that warrant them to ensure public safety. Two weeks is also a generally recommended time period for self-quarantines — it’s the same length as the incubation period for coronavirus, or the maximum amount of time between exposure and onset of symptoms. The World Health Organization says cases more commonly set in around five days after exposure.

Symptoms of coronavirus can look like fever, coughing, or shortness of breath, according to the CDC. If someone is confirmed to have the disease, they’re put in isolation at a hospital. Until then, Bracho-Sanchez says, quarantine measures are just precautionary. Anna says she plans on reaching out to her doctor if she experiences any symptoms beyond being tired from travel.

Self-Quarantines Vs. Government-Mandated Quarantines

Bracho-Sanchez says people whose community health officials, schools, or employers are recommending self-quarantine should call their doctor for individualized advice. “The level of risk is different for each person,” she says. “If you had a true, known exposure, then you absolutely should not be going out in the community.”

An increase in self-quarantine recommendations doesn’t automatically mean the U.S. is poised for an outbreak, Bracho-Sanchez stresses. Self-quarantine is much less severe than a government-mandated quarantine. Though rare and unlikely, the government is constitutionally allowed to issue official, compulsory quarantines. The last time the U.S. enforced a large-scale quarantine was more than 100 years ago, in response to the Spanish flu. While breaking a mandatory quarantine order can result in fines and jail time, the consequences of disobeying an employer-requested quarantine are ultimately up to the employer.

For now, Bracho-Sanchez says the best thing Americans can do is live normally, if not with a little more hand-washing and sanitizing. “I don’t think it’s time to stop going to concerts, stop taking the subway, stop sending kids to school,” Brancho-Sanchez says. “We’re not there.”

More or less stuck inside her East Coast home for the next couple of weeks, Anna says the best advice she can give people in similar situations is to be a cautious traveler and not to hesitate to change plans if they feel uncertain. “This is really the time to be your own advocate,” she says. “You can always change your vacation. You can’t change your situation if you’re put in quarantine or get ill.”

*Name has been changed.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC or NHS 111 in the UK for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.

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