Quarantine versus isolation: What's the difference?

Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-12 09:50:30-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Months into the pandemic the words "quarantine" and "isolation" have become commonplace, but the meanings behind the words are often confused.

Lexington-Fayette County Health Department Commissioner of Health Dr. Kraig Humbaugh explained the difference:

"Isolation is the term that we use for people who actually have the disease, in this case, COVID-19 that we're asking to stay home for a period of time so that we can prevent them from spreading the disease to others," he said. "And the quarantine is that staying at home period. The term that we use for people who are in contact with somebody who's a case."

For those who live with others, the terminology can become complicated among each other.

"If you have a case -- somebody who has COVID, who lives in your household, then you are in close contact to that person, so you're quarantining at home, and they are isolating at home," Humbaugh said. "You're basically both doing the same thing, but it's a little bit different terminology and the time that you're released from either isolation or quarantine is different."

Although these words were new to many people's vocabulary in 2020, Humbaugh explained the terms have been used for centuries.

"The reason was that people were actually quarantined sometimes on ships in ports when they came into a certain port in a city, they were told to stay on their boat to see if they developed any symptoms of any serious diseases before they were let into the city," he said. "And it came from originally that period was 40 days. And so that's where the quarantine came from that 'quatro' or that same Latin word."

Thankfully, 40 days is far longer than what public health officials are asking everyone to abide by during the coronavirus pandemic.

"The isolation period is at least 10 days in the case of COVID, but it could be longer depending on what your symptoms are," Humbaugh said. "So, people who have COVID are released based on how their symptom course goes. Whereas the quarantine for someone who's a close contact of somebody with COVID, that is usually 14 days from the last known exposure."