Do You Still Have to Isolate if You Catch COVID-19? Here’s What to Know

Even as the world inches back toward normalcy, there’s one lingering question that continues to vex many: What should you do if you test positive for COVID-19 in 2023? While mask mandates have largely disappeared and daily life has resumed its pre-pandemic pace, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still has a set of guidelines in place.

It’s like a faint echo from the past, urging those with a positive COVID-19 test to isolate for a certain period. As winter approaches and respiratory illnesses loom, it’s crucial to grasp the current landscape of COVID-19 isolation. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you navigate these lingering pandemic protocols in 2023.

What exactly does it mean to isolate?

Isolating if you have COVID-19 means keeping away from others, even those in your home, for a minimum of five days. If symptoms persist or the illness is severe, this isolation period may be longer.

The isolation starts from the day symptoms begin or, if symptom-free, from the day of a positive test. During this time, it’s essential to avoid going to school, work, or any public places. If sharing a home, it’s best to use a separate bathroom and avoid sharing household items like towels or cups.

Wearing a mask is advised if being around others is necessary, whether indoors or outdoors. op/After the isolation ends, it’s still recommended to wear a mask indoors for an additional five days, as some individuals can remain contagious beyond the initial five-day period. u

If two consecutive at-home tests, taken 48 hours apart, come back negative, it’s considered safe to be around others without a mask, even before the full 10-day period.

How do COVID-19 isolation guidelines compare to those for other diseases?

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The CDC provides comparable guidelines for individuals with the flu, which is the closest comparison to their COVID-19 recommendations. They advise those with the flu to remain at home for about four to five days or until they have been fever-free for at least 24 hours.

Does science still support COVID-19 isolation?

“People’s awareness of their role in halting infectious diseases remains crucial,” says Alyssa Bilinski, an assistant professor of health policy at the Brown University School of Public Health. Encouraging individuals to stay away from others when they’re sick or, at the very least, wear a mask if they need to be around people is an effective way to achieve this, she states.

Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist who often simplifies COVID-19 research in her newsletter, believes that five days of isolation might not be sufficient to prevent the spread of the virus. “COVID is not the flu,” she explains. “We stay contagious for a longer period with COVID.”

In fact, a study from 2022 discovered that, in a small group of individuals who contracted COVID-19 in either 2020 or 2021 and were tested multiple times during their illness, two-thirds were still capable of spreading the virus five days after symptom onset.

Meanwhile, a 2023 modeling study estimated that every 100 people who isolate for five days and then resume normal activities cause 23 additional infections—a number that the authors projected would decrease to just three if individuals self-tested after six days, ending isolation if they tested negative or continuing to stay home if they tested positive.

If the primary goal were halting infections, Jetelina would suggest a 10-day isolation. However, she points out that public health policies must also consider what is practical and feasible for the general population. Given limitations on sick leave and affordable childcare, many individuals cannot afford to pause their lives for 10 days.

In Bilinski’s view, those with access to at-home tests should place more trust in their test results than in the number of days they have spent at home. Research indicates that antigen test outcomes are a reliable indicator of contagiousness.

A positive test indicates the potential to transmit the virus, while a negative test implies a lower likelihood of transmission. Jetelina advises taking more than one test if possible. Most manufacturers recommend conducting a second test one to two days after a negative result to confirm it’s not a one-time occurrence that could jeopardize others.

How long will COVID-19 isolation policies last?

A CDC spokesperson chose not to discuss the agency’s intentions regarding the continuation of COVID-19 isolation recommendations. However, Jetelina anticipates that these guidelines will remain in effect, at least during the upcoming season of respiratory illnesses. She states, “The way [respiratory-disease season] plays out this winter” will impact how we handle this disease if there are any changes at all.

Understanding COVID-19 Isolation: What You Need to Know

What Is Isolation for COVID-19? Isolation means staying away from people when you have COVID-19. According to the CDC, if you’re sick, you should isolate for five days, longer if you were seriously ill or your symptoms persist. The isolation starts either from the day symptoms begin or the day after a positive test for asymptomatic individuals.

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During Isolation:

  • Stay home from work or school.
  • Avoid public places.
  • If you live with others, try to stay away from them. Use a separate bathroom if possible and don’t share items like cups or towels.
  • Wear a mask if you can’t fully isolate, even at home.

Post-Isolation Recommendations:

  • Keep masking around people indoors for an extra five days.
  • If two negative at-home tests, taken 48 hours apart, show up, you’re considered safe without a mask, even if it’s not the full 10 days.

Comparison with Other Diseases: Compared to flu recommendations, COVID-19 isolation is a bit longer. Flu guidelines suggest staying home for four to five days or until being fever-free for 24 hours.

The Science Behind COVID-19 Isolation: Alyssa Bilinski, a health policy assistant professor, emphasizes that being aware of stopping disease spread is crucial. Staying away from others while sick or wearing a mask around people helps in preventing transmission.

In a nutshell, following COVID-19 isolation guidelines is a crucial step in curbing the spread of the virus, and science still supports these preventive measures.

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