Shelter in place, self-isolation, quarantine: What the terms mean and how they differ

They all have the goal of keeping others from getting infected.


Isolation, quarantine, shelter in place: These are terms we're hearing a lot of these days as authorities try to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus that's sweeping the United States and the rest of the world.

They're not the same thing, though they all have the goal of keeping others from getting infected. But what do they mean, exactly?


Here are some brief explanations.


This is for people who may have been exposed to the virus. They are asked to stay at home, or as in the case with people who were repatriated from China to the United States, to stay in a provided facility.

They're required to be in quarantine for 14 days. After that, people who still don't test positive for the virus no longer have to be in a contained environment.

Some people may choose or be asked to self-quarantine, meaning they do it voluntarily just because they think they may have been exposed or they are being just cautious.

Governments -- federal, state and local -- can order quarantines, and in fact, those repatriated from China were under a federal quarantine order.

That's only done in extremely rare situations, though. The last time it was ordered on a large scale was during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


This is for people who actually have the virus or suspect they may be infected.

Those with the virus who need to be hospitalized will be kept in an isolation unit.

People who have been infected with the virus may be asked to self-isolate at home if they have no symptoms or are only mildly ill.

It's important to call your health provider, in any case, if you develop symptoms.

Those in isolation should keep away from other people as much as possible. The CDC recommends that you use a separate bathroom, if available, wear a face mask when around others and don't share household items.

Shelter in place

Until this week, the term "shelter in place" meant for most people an active shooter situation -- stay where you are until the coast is clear.

These people are being asked to stay at home as much as possible, meaning they shouldn't be out unless they are getting food, gas or other essentials or for medical reasons.

Health professionals, police, firefighters and other essential service providers are still expected to go to work. And of course, grocery store clerks and gas station attendants are working, too.

Going outside for a walk or exercise is allowed and even encouraged. But people are asked to keep their distance from others.

It's all about social distancing, and by now, we probably all know that means keeping 6 feet apart from other people when out and about.