Can People Exposed to COVID-19 Isolate Together?

Sometimes multiple people who live in the same household will get COVID-19 at the same time. Here's how that could impact what isolation looks like.

You know that it's important to help stop the spread of COVID-19 by being extra cautious if you think you've been exposed. And there is a good chance that you have been exposed to the virus a few times, and you might have even been infected.

As of August 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that when you've been exposed to COVID-19, take immediate precautions for 10 days and get tested at least five days after the date of exposure. Precautions include wearing a mask around others and monitoring yourself for symptoms. The CDC no longer recommends quarantine after exposure.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, there have been plenty of households where more than one person got sick at the same time. If one person tests positive for COVID-19, the CDC advised to have that person isolate from everyone else in the house. But what if two or more people are infected? Is it OK to isolate together?

According to William Schaffner, MD, an Infectious Disease Specialist and Professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, "it's understandable to want to have an isolation buddy." Dr. Schaffner told Health there are some things to keep in mind if you're interested in isolating with a friend, partner, or loved one. Here's a breakdown.

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COVID-19 Isolation

Isolation is used to separate people with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 from those who don't have the virus. When you're in isolation, you should stay home and separate from others, ideally in a specific "sick room" or area, and use a separate bathroom if it's available. If you need to be around other people in your home, the CDC recommends wearing a mask.

The CDC also suggested doing the following things when you're in isolation:

  • Monitor your symptoms and seek emergency medical care if you develop trouble breathing or other warning signs of severe COVID-19.
  • Take steps to improve your ventilation at home, if possible.
  • Avoid contact with other members of your household and pets.
  • Don't share personal household items like cups, towels, and utensils.

Isolation Recommendations

Because guidelines can change as new scientific information becomes available, it's always a good idea to check the CDC COVID-19 website for the latest recommendations on isolation. As of August 2022, the public health agency recommended that you should isolate yourself for at least five days from the day you developed symptoms or from the day you tested positive (if no symptoms).

After those five days, you can start to be around others if you remain asymptomatic. But if you develop symptoms, you will first need to be fever-free for 24 hours, and your symptoms need to be improving. Also, you should wear a face mask around others in indoor settings. If your illness is moderate or severe, your isolation should last for 10 days. Remember to wear a high-quality mask when indoors around others at home and in public.

Isolating With Someone Else

The question about isolating with someone else is a little tricky. "The word is 'isolation,'" Dr. Schaffner said. "It doesn't mean 'cohabitation.'"

Still, Dr. Schaffner said, "there will be circumstances in which people in the same household are positive simultaneously or closely to the same time, and they're going to be maskless if they live together—for sure that's going to happen."

Timing

Isolating together can create some nuances and questions that wouldn't be an issue if you isolated alone, Dr. Schaffner explained. A big one is timing: If you test positive for COVID-19 one day and your partner tests positive two days later, Dr. Schaffner still recommended sticking with your individual timeline for isolation. "You have to count the five days on an individual basis," Dr. Schaffner added.

Variants

There's also a question about variants. It's difficult to find out which variant of COVID-19 you have. Technically, there's a chance you could have one variant, like Delta, while someone in your household has another, like Omicron, Dr. Schaffner said.

"It's much more likely that you all have the same variant, infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Health.

The CDC reports general variant proportions. For example, in January 2022, Omicron was responsible for 95.4% of all COVID-19 cases in the US. "For all intents and purposes, people can assume they all had Omicron," Dr. Adalja said at that time.

Even if you were to have one variant and someone you're isolating with were to have another, Dr. Schaffner said it's unlikely you'd swap variants. "There is some cross-immunity between variants," Dr. Schaffner pointed out.

Viral Load

Your viral load (which is how much of the virus you're carrying in your body and shedding) could play a role in whether you should isolate with someone, Dr. Schaffner said.

This means that if someone you're isolating with is coughing and sneezing more and they're carrying a higher viral load, you'll be exposed to that, too, and that's where masking up and isolating separately would come in handy. But, Dr. Schaffner explained, "you have no way of knowing what your viral load is."

How To Decide

If you're interested in isolating with a friend or partner who lives someplace different, it's kind of a judgment call.

Dr. Adalja said you can isolate with someone else if you prefer. "If multiple members of a household or distinct households are positive for COVID, they can isolate together and there's really no benefit to them wearing masks," Dr. Adalja said.

"[Isolating with others] is generally felt to be OK, as long as you're both already infected," John Sellick, DO, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo/SUNY, told Health.

"But if you were exposed together but only one person is sick, you shouldn't automatically assume that the other one is infected and isolate together," Dr. Sellick added.

Dr. Sellick recommended just taking isolation "at its face value" and actually staying apart from others for a few days.

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Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What to do if you were exposed to COVID-19.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Isolation and precautions for people with COVID-19.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Types of masks and respirators.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID data tracker.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Resolve to be safe: COVID data tracker weekly review.

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