Physical Distancing, Isolation, and Quarantine

An explanation of the differences between physical distancing, isolation, and quarantine

Physical (Social) Distancing

Physical distancing, also called social distancing, means staying home and remaining out of congregate settings (gathering in a large group for a prolonged period of time), avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet—or 2 meters) from others when possible.


Isolation, or Quarantine?

Isolation means the separation of a person or group of people known or reasonably believed to be infected with a communicable disease and potentially infectious from those who are not infected to prevent spread of the communicable disease. Isolation for public health purposes may be voluntary or compelled by federal, state, or local public health order.

Quarantine means the separation of a person or group of people reasonably believed to have been exposed to a communicable disease but not yet symptomatic, from others who have not been so exposed, to prevent the possible spread of the communicable disease.

Isolation and Quarantine

If you have received a recommendation to isolate or quarantine, here's what you should do:

  • Morningside campus students, use this Columbia Health guide: Isolation for Students and Quarantine for Students.
  • Stay home—in your room, apartment, or house. Do not go out except when directed by a medical professional.
  • If you live with others, do not spend time in shared living spaces and limit contact with those you live with. Students unable to do this should contact Columbia Health at 212-854-7426 or CUIMC Student Health Service at 212-305-3400 for recommendations.
    • The only exception is where all suitemates are asked to quarantine together, in which case they can be in shared spaces together.
  • Arrange for food to be delivered via friends, Columbia Dining, grocery delivery services, etc.; if you have concerns about this, contact Columbia Health at 212-854-7426 or CUIMC Student Health Service at 212-305-3400 for recommendations.
  • Avoid sharing household items. Do not share drinking glasses, towels, eating utensils, bedding, or any other items until you are no longer asked to isolate.
  • Staff are expected to work remotely, if able. Stay in daily contact with your supervisor and local HR. 
  • Students should connect with their academic department about virtual attendance and coursework.
  • Wipe down high-touch surfaces (e.g., doorknobs, telephones, remote controls, and bathroom surfaces) often with a standard household disinfectant such as Clorox® wipes.
  • Monitor your temperature twice a day.
  • If you develop fever, cough, difficulty breathing, or other symptoms, or your symptoms worsen, contact Columbia Health at 212-854-7426 (Morningside students), CUIMC Student Health Service at 212-305-3400 (CUIMC students) or your primary care provider (staff).

If someone you live with has received a recommendation to isolate, you may be at increased risk. You will be contacted by a contact tracer to evaluate your situation and provide further guidance.

a diagram of nested circles illustrating persons with COVID-19 and  people once and twice removed from them

Second degree contacts are people who spend time around someone who had direct contact or are once removed from a direct contact. They do not need to isolate or quarantine. Please review guidance around second degree or greater contacts.