The omicron variant of the coronavirus has rapidly spread across the United States, upending holiday plans for some of the pandemic-weary and driving people to testing sites — and for many, into quarantine.
Some experts have warned infection may be creeping closer to an inevitability for many. Those who have tested positive or have been exposed to someone who has been infected are quarantining and isolating. If and when that happens, public health experts and psychologists have recommendations for ways to cope and to stay safe.
What’s the difference between quarantine and isolation?
“Isolation” takes place after you’ve been infected. If you have tested positive for the coronavirus but don’t have any symptoms, you should isolate for 10 days, beginning the first full day after the positive test, according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you develop symptoms after testing positive, start the 10-day isolation period from the beginning.
If you are symptomatic, the CDC says to begin the 10-day isolation the day after symptoms develop.
“Quarantine” occurs after you’ve been exposed and possibly infected after being in close contact with somebody who has tested positive. The CDC defines “close contact” as being within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. Fully vaccinated individuals do not need to quarantine unless they develop symptoms, but the CDC says they should get tested five to seven days after exposure. Public health experts have stressed that getting vaccinated, and boosted, is key to protecting against severe illness.
People who are not fully vaccinated need to quarantine for a full 14 days after the last exposure to a person who tested positive, the CDC says.
Adi Shah, a Mayo Clinic infectious-disease consultant, said given concerns about the omicron variant, and the possibility of breakthrough infections, he would personally recommend that even vaccinated individuals take extra precaution by quarantining for five to seven days after exposure, and then taking a test on or after the fifth day.
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You’ve watched your entire Netflix queue. What else can you do while in quarantine or isolation?
Experts stressed the need for intentional rest, especially if you’re feeling symptoms.
“If someone isn’t feeling well, they should take that time to rest, try not to worry and let their body recover as much as possible,” said Elizabeth Stuart, professor in mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
For anyone with symptoms, this can be “like any other sick day,” said Lynn Goldman, dean of George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Bed rest, lots of fluids. Take care of yourself,” she said.
But if you’re feeling up to it, some suggested tackling a fun project — a throwback to early lockdown days.
If you want, the quarantine or isolation period can be a productive one — especially for vaccinated individuals who face a significantly lower risk of severe illness and hospitalization, said Emily Landon, the chief infectious-disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine.
“It’s a good idea to say ‘I’m out, I’ve got COVID’ and use [the quarantine or isolation period] to make something or DIY something you’ve never done before,” Landon said. “If you’re fully vaxxed and boosted, you’re not likely to have many symptoms, so 10 days of isolation could be a long time.”
Landon, a self-described “queen of hobbies,” suggested using the time to decompress and do crafty projects you might not otherwise have the time or space to peruse, like painting or crocheting (“It’s really easy and you can learn on the internet,” she said.)
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What are some ideas for staying active, if you’re feeling up to it?
Health experts repeatedly suggested staying active if people are feeling well enough — and exercising both body and mind.
Stuart encouraged people to keep regular routines and schedules even while in staying in.
“It would be easy to sit in front of the TV or computer and just watch shows for 24 hours and that’s not going to be good,” she said. “Establishing a routine, having normal sleep patterns, trying to get up at normal times … will keep mood up.”
After needing to quarantine multiple times, Shah said he picked up exercising at home, and recommended 10 to 20 minute strength training videos or deep-breathing guides on YouTube. He also suggested activities to “calm the mind,” whether through mindfulness exercises, meditation apps, or talking to a therapist.
“Mental health is extremely important at a time like this,” Shah said. “As is physical health — but mental health is something we have neglected and we are continuing to neglect.”
Navigating quarantine or isolation “revolves around finding a balance between prioritizing taking care of family and loved ones who might be dealing with covid-related issues, but tending to our own self-care,” said Adam Borland, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic. Health experts said it’s critical for those in quarantine or isolation to separate themselves from other household members, and acknowledged that is more difficult for some, including families with young children who cannot take care of themselves.
Borland said meditation and deep breathing can “help with the anxiety that people are feeling during this time.”
“Numbers are spiking and it’s the holidays and people are frustrated and worried about how things may play out,” Borland said. “And frankly people are angry about the fact that this is still going on.”
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Is it safe to go for a walk? What about walking your dog?
If you are symptom free, or feeling up to doing so without straining your body, Shah said it’s OK for people in both quarantine and isolation to go outside for a walk — but only if they can do so without coming into contact with anyone else.
“If you are alone and you are the only person on the trail or road, then it’s OK,” Shah said.
For those who are COVID-19-positive, “I would not recommend even being around even one person,” he said. “If you are having no symptoms or mild symptoms, and you want to take your dog out for a walk … just wear a mask and go.”
Shah added: “It’s been two years of this; we have to give a little bit of practical considerations to our patients and to people too.”
It may be harder if you live in an apartment to leave your home without coming into contact with others, said Albert Ko, an infectious-disease physician and epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, but he echoed that if people are “living alone and can ensure they can really go out without encountering anybody even briefly, and as long as they’re wearing a face mask,” then a walk outside would be OK.
Landon reminded people to give neighbors a wave but keep on walking when you see them.
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How can people check in on loved ones who are quarantining or isolating?
For people with local loved ones in quarantine or isolation, Stuart suggested dropping off a care package outside of their door, perhaps with healthy foods or a Gatorade.
“If you’re not local, the periodic text or phone call … or the ‘I just read this article, here’s a link,’ ” she said. “A little check in throughout the day to give them a little bit of distraction here and there.”
It’s important to remain connected even while separated, Ko said. “That helps with the loneliness and isolation that occurs … I know people have felt that,” Ko said, adding, “People can have several people close to them that are checking in and calling — that helps.”
Borland, who said he was quarantine himself, said he recently received a box of surprise doughnuts.
“There are ways we can acknowledge and just let them know, ‘We’re thinking of you and we know this is not the way you want to be spending the holidays,’ ” he said.