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Everything you wanted to know about self-quarantine, from a person who’s living it

Everything you wanted to know about self-quarantine, from a person who’s living it


My generation was made for this

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Photo via Daria Nepriakhina / Unsplash

It’s a romance story, really: boy asks girl to go to Milan for Valentine’s Day weekend. They dine, wine, ski, shop, then come home and spend two weeks at home unable to leave each other’s side. 

At least, it would be a romance story if it weren’t for the fact that just days after they returned, Italy experienced an outbreak of the novel coronavirus that, to date, has killed and infected more than 100 people and 3,000 people, respectively, in that region. 

The girl in question is me, by the way, and the first reaction people have when I tell them I’ve been advised to self-quarantine is that they’re shocked or sorry. But the truth is there’s nothing that prepares you better for isolation than the internet era. I already spend my days in front of screens and in my own head. We’re a generation built for this kind of alonement.

In all seriousness: self-quarantine / isolation is an important decision that should not be made lightly. When done right, you could help prevent the transmission of the virus in your community and might help contain an outbreak.

So just how do you properly self-quarantine? From my experience so far, you’ll need patience and to take a lot of precautions.

Self-quarantine vs. Self-isolate

Is there a difference? Technically, yes. In theory, the act of making sure you are not in contact with others is the same, but the Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines the two slightly differently. Self-isolating is for people who have already been infected with the virus and are ill. Self-quarantining is for those who may be ill and need to keep themselves separate from others on the chance they become sick over the incubation period.

How do I know if I have to self-quarantine?

On a virtually empty flight from Italy. Maybe that was the first sign that something was off.
On a virtually empty flight from Italy. Maybe that was the first sign that something was off.

Have you traveled to China, Iran, South Korea, Italy, Hong Kong, or Japan in the last 14 days? If the answer is yes, you should probably self-quarantine for two weeks from the last day you were in the affected country. Other countries that are also experiencing smaller outbreaks include Macau, Singapore, and Mongolia. If you’ve recently returned from those areas, you may also want to consider self-quarantine out of extra precaution.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, can exhibit symptoms between two and 14 days after exposure, according to the CDC. So even if you feel fine in the first few days, you should wait for a full two weeks to make sure nothing develops within that incubation period.

I haven’t been to those places recently, but someone in my class / office / family has.

Have you been in close contact with those people in the last 14 days? You’re probably fine if you just waved at each other from across the hallway, but if you’ve been in the same meeting room for an extended time or went out for food with them, it’s likely a good idea to also stay home to monitor for symptoms, especially if that person begins exhibiting them, too.

Fine, I guess I’ll go into quarantine. What am I looking for during this period?

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, and symptoms include fever, coughing, chest pains, and difficulty breathing. If you experience any of those symptoms during your self-quarantine, call your doctor to get advice on what to do next.

Wearing a mask and showing up to your local hospital or urgent care may risk infecting others in your community along the way, so it’s safer to get advice from a medical professional before heading to a facility for treatment.

Got it. So how am I supposed to live while stuck at home for two weeks?

If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s how much we touch our faces without thinking about it or how much stuff we share with our community in daily living. The day I found out I had to self-quarantine, my immediate thought was to get groceries to last the weeks. Then I realized I couldn’t leave my house to go pick my own vegetables and fruits at the risk of potentially infecting a whole supermarket

There are several options here. Most major cities offer food and grocery delivery services like Peapod, Instacart, or FreshDirect. You can also employ labor markets like TaskRabbit or ask friends and family to get you necessities like food, toiletries, and medicine while you’re in isolation. Only use these options if you are truly self-isolating and need to be! You don’t want to risk depleting supplies from those who actually need them.

Disinfect everything — from doorknobs to doorbells

Before your delivery arrives, it’s a good idea to disinfect public areas that the delivery person might interact with, such as the doorknob or doorbell, by using wipes or cleaning solutions. When your savior arrives with the goods, ask them to call you or leave a sign out front to drop the items outside your door. Only when they’ve departed should you retrieve your goods to avoid potential person-to-person spread.

Whoa, my house is piling up in trash!

Isn’t it wild how much waste we generate in just a few days? Many cities are asking that those in self-quarantine line trash cans with double bags and do not take them out until the isolation period is over. Separate your wet and dry trash to contain the smell as best you can.

If you’re in the clear after two weeks, take the garbage out as usual; otherwise, a medical professional will advise you on what to do. (If you have gloves on hand, it wouldn’t hurt to take them out while wearing them.)

What if I have roommates?

I hope you like your bedroom because this is your home for the next 14 days. You shouldn’t leave it other than to get something to eat or use the bathroom — and you should let your roommates use the kitchen / bathroom before you go in. Remember to also thoroughly disinfect surfaces you touch after you’re done to avoid contaminating shared spaces, and do not share household items like cups, plates, utensils, and towels during this time.

If you share a bed with your partner, it’s best to also isolate from each other if possible to avoid potentially transmitting the virus to one another. Even if you both were in an impacted country together, it’s still possible one person could have caught it separately. If you live in a small studio apartment and have no place else to go, the CDC recommends wearing a face mask when you’re around housemates.

If you’re responsible for taking care of others (yes, that includes pets!), you’ll need to make plans for someone to take over those duties for the next two weeks as COVID-19 can be particularly dangerous for those with underlying health conditions or the elderly. If you’re a nursing mother, you should also consult with a medical professional. The CDC guidelines indicate that if you must breastfeed, wash your hands before handling the infant or a breast pump machine.

Have you washed your hands today?

It’s been said a bunch of times already, but you should also wash your hands thoroughly and often. Each wash should last 20 seconds using soap and water. Kill time by singing the verse of your favorite song, chanting the ABCs, or put on a good TikTok. (Each one lasts 15 to 60 seconds, and since it loops, you can watch a short one twice. What, like you have some place to be right now?)

What the heck am I supposed to do for two weeks in a room?

Your imagination is as good as mine! Are there any side projects you’ve always wanted to start or at-home hobbies you want to get back into? Shows you’ve always meant to binge but never found time to? Things you want to learn but haven’t found a way to commit? Books you’re behind on?

Thankfully, I’ve been able to work from home with my personal laptop, stream some TV shows at night, and find a lot of time to start working out more regularly without distractions luring me into the outside world. The new Final Fantasy VII PS4 demo is also out, if you have a system. The thing that helped me was to consider the quarantine not as a prison sentence, but as an opportunity to regain time for myself and learn how to be happy being alone. It’s actually kind of nice.

Of course, getting lonely is natural, so also use this time to connect with yourself or call a loved one; you might not be allowed to have visitors at home but you can always talk to friends by phone or video call if you begin to get cabin fever.

But really, are you okay, Natt?

Look, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t already watched all of the reruns of Project Runway this season. Yes, you will get bored. Cabin fever will happen, but it’s going to be fine. In the meantime, feel free to send funny GIFs to @nattgarun.

Update: March 6th, 2020 3:18 PM ET: This article has been updated to clarify the difference between self-quarantine and self-isolation.