COVID-19 is transmitted by people who are infected and are spreading the virus. A person who comes into contact with the virus could develop symptoms quickly, or not until up to 14 days later (the incubation period). About half of people with COVID-19 will develop symptoms by day five after exposure. But becoming infected doesn’t always mean having symptoms, and in most cases, people will likely experience a mild illness. However, for a significant number of people, the virus can have devastating effects on their health, welfare and the health and welfare of those who depend on them.
Virus transmission happens when an infected person comes into contact with an uninfected person, either directly (face to face) or indirectly, through contaminated objects the infected person has come into contact with, such as doorknobs, work surfaces, pens, and so on . The best way to help contain the pandemic is to isolate infected people and decontaminate or clean the objects they’ve come into contact with. In the current pandemic circumstances, many new practices have been implemented in workplaces to deal with infection prevention and control. Two of these are self-isolation and quarantine, and they are used to help control the spread of infections. It can be confusing to understand how these measures are different.
Self-isolation is for people who are confirmed to be infected with the virus. This person either has symptoms or is asymptomatic but has been confirmed to have the virus by a COVID-19 test. They will remove themselves, and what they interact with, from other people. This kind of isolation has to be strict, particularly when a person is infectious, because that’s how others close to them will become infected. In a care setting, isolation may be imposed on individuals confirmed to be infected with the virus by the infection prevention and control practices at the facility (for example, being moved to an isolation room in a hospital).
Quarantine is for people who have been in contact with a person who is confirmed to be infected, or have travelled to areas designated by your public health unit as requiring quarantine. This person doesn’t have symptoms yet, but that doesn’t mean that they are not infected, and it doesn’t mean that they can’t spread the virus. It also doesn’t mean that they will get infected, only that there is a greater risk for infection to occur. To prevent the spread of infection, a person who has been exposed to someone who has the virus will remove themselves from contact with the general public. They can interact with family members living within the same household, but they shouldn’t be out in public because of the higher risk that they may be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. No contact with others means no infection transmission.
For example, if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, they would self-isolate. That means that they would separate themselves from the rest of their household as much as possible, isolating in a separate room, using a separate bathroom, and so on. The rest of the family might quarantine together and continue their interactions but keep themselves separate from their sick family member. They would use precautions (like physical distance, hand washing, masking) when bringing food or any other thing to their ill family member and treat everything like it was infected. The isolation and quarantine would continue until advised otherwise by the public health unit.
A person with COVID-19 is considered infectious two days before the beginning of symptoms (it may be more), even if these symptoms might be mild, like a headache. The ability to infect someone else is considered to have ended when symptoms resolve and disappear. For a person who was exposed, tested positive but with no symptoms, the ability to transmit the virus remains a possibility for at least 14 days from the time of exposure. If the exposure event is unknown, you may need to quarantine for the full 14 days. The public health unit in your area will be able to inform you of how long the isolation period would be or under what conditions they might be lifted. By isolating those who have symptoms of, or have tested positive for COVID-19, and quarantining those who may have been exposed to the virus, we can help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Remember, we can all do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19 when we:
- Maintain physical distancing of at least two metres or six feet
- Practice good hygiene, like frequent handwashing, and coughing or sneezing into the crook of your arm/elbow
- Wear masks in public, whether inside or outside
- Isolate and quarantine when needed