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How long should a person with COVID-19 isolate?

By The Health News Team | June 15, 2022
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Summer is just around the corner and COVID-19 cases are rising exponentially in San Diego County, with the omicron variants largely responsible for the latest increase.

If a person tests positive for COVID — either with or without symptoms — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it’s time to cancel plans and stay home. But the CDC’s isolation guidelines can be confusing.

How many days does a person need to self-isolate — is it five or 10? Do they need a negative test to leave the house? This article explains what people need to know about isolation guidance to help stop the spread.

I tested positive for COVID-19. How long do I need to isolate? In 2021, the CDC reduced the minimum isolation time from 10 days to five. If you test positive and have symptoms, the day you start to feel sick is day 0 of your isolation time. If you don’t have symptoms but test positive, your isolation period starts the day you took the test.

Regardless of your vaccination status or how you feel, you should stay home and away from others for at least five days if you tested positive for COVID. After day 5 is where it gets a little more complicated:

  • If you had symptoms: You can end isolation after five full days if you are fever-free for 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medication) and your symptoms are improving. Wear a well-fitting mask until day 10 whenever you are around others.

  • If you did not have symptoms: You can end isolation after five full days from when you received your positive test. Wear a well-fitting mask until day 10 whenever you are around others.

  • If you got very sick or have a weakened immune system: You should isolate for at least 10 full days. Consult your doctor before ending isolation.

Do people in my household need to quarantine if someone tests positive?
The words “isolation” and “quarantine” have been used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Isolation is meant for those already sick, while quarantine is for people who’ve had close contact with someone who has COVID-19. The CDC defines close contact as someone who was less than 6 feet away from an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more during a 24-hour period.

The California Department of Public Health goes a step further, saying sharing the same indoor airspace at home for that same duration and time period is considered a close contact.

  • If you’re up to date on COVID-19 vaccination: As long as you don’t have symptoms and are fully vaccinated, the CDC says quarantining isn’t necessary after exposure. However, you should still get tested at least five days after the close contact and wear a mask around others until day 10.

  • If you’re not up to date on — or eligible for — COVID vaccinations: Stay home and quarantine for at least five days. Even if you don’t develop symptoms, you should get tested at least five days after exposure and wear a mask until day 10.

“Precautions like wearing a mask, regularly cleaning surfaces and not sharing personal items should be taken to avoid other members of the household getting sick,” says Dr. Abisola Olulade, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, if you get symptoms at any time, get tested immediately.”

Should I take a test before leaving isolation?
No testing is required to end isolation. However, the CDC recommends using an at-home rapid COVID-19 antigen test as an extra precaution.

The best time to test is near the end of your five-day isolation if you are fever-free for 24 hours and any other symptoms have improved. If the test is positive, continue isolating until day 10. If the test is negative, you can end isolation but should continue to wear a mask around others at home and in public until you hit the 10-day mark.

Having to stay at home can be frustrating, especially if you’re experiencing uncomfortable symptoms — or experiencing no symptoms at all. However, self-isolating and avoiding close contact with others is an effective way to help slow the spread.

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