Isolation vs. Quarantine: What's the Difference?

Coronavirus precautions have led to questions over methods of isolation.
Coronavirus precautions have led to questions over methods of isolation. / LucaLorenzelli/iStock via Getty Images

As the new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, continues to challenge health care professionals across the country, some communities are urging those who have had brushes with the virus to exercise a self-quarantine. The action would limit a person's proximity to others for 14 days; by the end of this period, the symptoms would have manifested if the person was infected. Others are described as being in isolation. What’s the difference between these two restrictive methods of segregation from the public?

According to information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a quarantine usually refers to the practice in which a still-healthy person who may have been exposed to a pathogen distances themselves from others for a certain period of time. By avoiding contact with people, the potential spread of disease is limited.

Quarantine is probably best defined as a period of watchful waiting to determine whether someone who has been exposed will begin to exhibit symptoms as well as wait out the duration of being infectious to others. The practice is believed to have started in the 14th century, when foreign ships arriving in Venice were docked for 40 days to reduce transmission of plagues. “Quarantine” comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, or “40 days.”

Isolation refers to the practice of housing a sick patient in an attempt to stop the spread of infectious illness. For those with severe symptoms or highly contagious disease, it usually means a hospital unit. People with mild symptoms might be allowed to self-isolate at home.

In short, a quarantine is enacted to see if someone becomes sick. Isolation applies to those who are already sick.

Federal, state, and local officials all have the authority to impose either status on an individual, though the extent of those powers can vary. Most states consider breaking a quarantine order a criminal misdemeanor, which could theoretically result in jail time or a fine.

[h/t 6ABC]