By now, about six months into the coronavirus pandemic, most of us know what to do if we are exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Namely, quarantine at home for 14 days after exposure in order to keep the disease from spreading.
Sure, we know that. But an interesting question came up recently, about whether or not quarantine can be a little less isolating. The question came to us from one Inquirer reader who reached out through our Curious Philly portal.
“If my friends and I all got exposed to [COVID-19] by the same person, can we quarantine together?”
According to the asker, who asked to remain anonymous, she and two of her roommates, as well as their partners, were unintentionally exposed to the virus by a fourth roommate who later tested positive for COVID-19.
So can people who are all exposed to COVID-19 as a group hunker down and quarantine together? Here is what you need to know:
Well, can you quarantine as a group?
Well, in a word, no — especially if you aren’t already living together, or have no other option. Dr. Michael LeVasseur, a visiting assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, has a longer — and more firm — answer.
“No, no. No, no, no. No, no. No,” he says. “Here’s the issue: Just because everyone is exposed doesn’t mean that everyone is going to get the virus. If you’re actually asked to quarantine, you should do that in isolation.”
But that seems counterintuitive, right? You’ve all been exposed, haven’t you?
It turns out, it doesn’t matter that the initial exposure came from one person, he adds. Quarantining together puts everyone at higher risk of getting sick.
The goal of quarantining
As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says online, the goal behind quarantining is to “keep someone who might have been exposed to COVID-19 away from others” in order to help prevent further infections. If you’re in quarantine, the CDC says, you should remain at home and separate yourself from other people while monitoring your health for 14 days after you were last in close contact with someone diagnosed with the virus.
Quarantining as a group, LeVasseur says, conflicts with those guidelines, and puts everyone in the group at higher risk for becoming sick if one of them winds up getting infected. That’s because just because you were all exposed, doesn’t mean you were all infected. But if someone gets sick, the longer you spend as a group, the higher the chance that the infection could spread.
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Not only that, but if someone gets symptoms, the quarantine “clock” has to be reset because it’s considered a new exposure, which extends the amount of time each person needs to spend isolated from others.
“Let’s say you have four people who were exposed, and they plan to quarantine together for 14 days. If one gets sick, they all get exposed again,” he says. “It’s about resetting that clock every time someone actually ends up infected.”
The CDC, meanwhile, backs that guideline on their website, noting that any time that “a new household member gets sick with COVID-19 and you had close contact, you will need to restart your quarantine.”
What if you’re with your family or roommates?
There are, however, some situations when multiple people may need to quarantine in the same house — like if you have a family, or housemates, or are the primary caretaker for someone and everyone becomes exposed. In those situations, LeVasseur says, you should “aim to stay in your room, and stay away from other people as much as possible,” and follow enhanced cleaning procedures for shared areas, even if it may be difficult.
“If you all share one bathroom, that can’t become the ‘infected bathroom.’ It’s going to be difficult,” he says. “If you have the luxury of having a spare bedroom, put the exposed person in there, and avoid going into that room.”
But when it comes to getting exposed to COVID-19 alongside people who live outside your household as a group, LeVasseur says moving in together and quarantining as a unit isn’t a great option. His advice instead: “Stay home. Alone.”
“Sit in your room and watch Netflix for two weeks,” he says. “There are worse things in the world — like infecting people you care about, and them getting horribly sick and potentially dying or having severe complications. If you are exposed, you should treat yourself as though you are infected and infectious. It’s universal precaution.”
Dr. Michael LeVasseur, visiting assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health.