Can People Isolate Or Quarantine Together?

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

The Covid Data Tracker from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can quickly show you the ups and downs of COVID-19 spread across the US. You have probably been exposed to the virus a few times, and you might have even been infected. Exposure calls for quarantine, and infection means you need to isolate.

Quarantine is a time when you stay away from others after having been exposed to see if you develop any symptoms. And isolation is a time when you stay away from others after you have developed symptoms or tested positive. Quarantine and isolation are both meant to prevent others from catching the virus from you.

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 advises that they should isolate them from everyone else in the house. But what about 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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Getty Images / Design by Jo Imperio

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, according to the CDC. 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, per the CDC. If you need to be around other people in your home, the CDC recommends wearing a mask.

The CDC suggests also doing the following 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.
  • 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

In late December 2021, the CDC changed its isolation recommendations. At that time, the public health agency began to recommend that you isolate yourself for at least five days (it used to be 10) from the day you developed symptoms or tested positive for the virus.

Five days after you developed symptoms or tested positive, if you're fever-free for 24 hours and your symptoms are improving—or if you had always been asymptomatic—the CDC says that you can be around others but should do so with a face mask for an additional five days.

"The change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the one to two days prior to the onset of symptoms and the two to three days after," the CDC said in a media statement about the change.

Isolating With Someone Else

The question about isolating with someone else is a little tricky, Dr. Schaffner said. "The word is 'isolation,'" said Dr. Schaffner. "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," added Dr. Schaffner.

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, at one time Omicron was responsible for 95.4% of all COVID 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 (ie, 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 COVD, 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," added Dr. Sellick. Don't just assume that because someone was exposed to COVID that they have the virus—that's what quarantine is for.

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

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