At this point, many of us have been isolating at home for weeks. Does that mean it’s safe to start spending time with others who have also been isolating?
After all, many people have been asking, if we’ve been staying home, doesn’t that mean we’re disease-free and thus fine to hang out?
Strictly speaking, experts said, you might be OK if both parties have really, truly been isolated for long enough and not been exposed.
But those are huge qualifiers, they said — and it’s still safest to stay home right now.
“You just don’t know who they’ve been around or what they’ve been exposed to. Or you don’t know whether they may be asymptomatic and harboring the virus,” said Judith J. Lightfoot, chief of infectious disease at Rowan University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine. “The thought of it is just to stay home, to not give people the thought that they can tempt fate.”
One of the big problems, Lightfoot said, is that it’s hard to stay completely isolated for weeks. We’re still allowed to go outside for individual exercise — staying apart from others — and for essential trips such as to the grocery store or pharmacy. That means many people who are isolating, and taking precautions to stay safe, still have some degree of exposure to risk.
Those risks may be small, and you shouldn’t overly worry about small risks, but it’s still safer to stay home than to visit people. How many people who have been isolated for weeks have truly been entirely isolated, without any exposure to the outside world?
“It depends on how much you trust each other, because you are each still going out into other parts of the world,” said Jayatri Das, chief bioscientist at the Franklin Institute. “There’s no guarantee about who each of you may have encountered. And any time you bring that together, there’s an unknown.”
What makes the situation even trickier is that some people may be asymptomatic — have the virus, but not any symptoms — and not know they’re infected, said Aline M. Holmes, a professor at Rutgers School of Nursing and director of its Clinical Systems Project.
On the flip side, she said, other people really are home, isolated, and uninfected — and interacting with others puts them at more risk.
“You go outside and pass a person who has COVID and doesn’t know it, you could come down sick a couple days later,” Holmes said. “And if you’re asymptomatic and you stay at home, you should stay that way and stay at home.”
So either way, she said, whether you’re asymptomatic or uninfected, it’s safest to stay home.
Widespread testing would change the situation, experts said. Right now, it’s still hard to know who is currently infected, who has never been infected, and who has had the virus and recovered.
“You either got sick or you got tested, and we’re not testing,” said Suzanne Willard, associate dean of global health and clinical professor at Rutgers School of Nursing. “Until you know what your status is, consider yourself infected.”
Behaving as though you’re sick is a best practice, experts said, for helping make sure you don’t try to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable and accidentally put yourself or others at risk.
“Once we get to a point where we can test people to know whether they’ve had it or not, we can be much more confident in who we are interacting with,” Das said. “Once we can characterize people’s exposure state, then we can relax some of these [rules].”
One of the dangers in focusing on “social distancing” and “self-isolation” is it can sound like we’re being ordered to cut ties with others.
Not true, experts and officials said. It’s important to maintain social ties.
“Right now, and until we get through all this, although difficult — it’s a tight time right now — we have our phones, we have Facebook, if you have an iPhone you have FaceTime,” Lightfoot said. Make a point of reaching out to others, she said.
Finding those other ways to check in on friends and family, Willard said, will help everyone mentally and emotionally while not putting anyone at risk.
Remember, she said, it’s not selfish to stay home. In fact, it’s the responsible thing to do. Together, with everyone doing our part, we’ll get through this.
“If I’m asking my kids to come from different places to come together, I’m putting them at risk. I don’t know where they’ve been. Now I’m jeopardizing [health],” Willard said. “It’s best to err on the side of like, look, we want to have Easter next year. We want to have Passover next year.”