Social Distancing, Isolation, and Quarantine

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

Social Distancing

Social distancing, also called physical 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.


A key element to the success of social distancing is staying home as much as possible, leaving only to get groceries (once a week), for physical activity (that does not include anyone outside your household), and for work if you are a designated essential staff person (e.g. health care worker, police officer, etc.).


Self-isolation, Isolation, or Quarantine?

A recommendation for self-isolation serves to temporarily separate people who have been in an area of public health concern to help protect their health and that of their community. This technique was used for returning travelers from countries with high rates of COVID-19. In most cases where self-isolation is recommended, most people willingly comply to support their personal health and the broader community well-being.

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.

Currently, self-isolation or quarantine recommendations are made on a case-by-case basis depending on exposure and risk factors. In many cases, a recommendation is being made out of an abundance of caution.

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. A mandatory quarantine is a formal, binding requirement for someone to be separated from other contacts in the interest of public health and may be enforced. Decisions to implement a mandatory quarantine are made by public health officials. Columbia University is closely monitoring guidelines from the relevant authorities and will follow all mandatory quarantine protocols if and when they are required.

How to Self-isolate

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

  • Use these Columbia Health guides: Self-isolation for Students and Self-isolation for Faculty and Staff.
  • Stay home—in your room, apartment, or house. Do not go out unless absolutely necessary.
  • 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 212-854-9355 for recommendations.
  • Arrange for food to be delivered via friends, Columbia Dining, grocery delivery services, etc.; if you have concerns about this, contact Columbia Health at 212-854-9355 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 self-isolate.
  • You are expected to work remotely, if able. Stay in daily contact with your supervisor and local HR.  While complying with a self-isolation advice, you will still be paid for standard work hours.
  • 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, or difficulty breathing, students should notify Columbia Health by calling 212-854-9355; faculty and staff should contact their primary care provider.

If someone you live with has received a recommendation to self-isolate, you do not necessarily have an increased risk. If your residential set up includes individual bedrooms, the person self-isolating should spend most of their time in that space. Self-isolating individuals can use common spaces but should aim to do so when others are not in the shared areas (living rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, etc.). Students whose living situations do not have individual bedrooms should contact Columbia Health at 212-854-9355 for recommendations.

Quarantine

If a roommate, suitemate, or family member has received a recommendation to quarantine, it does not necessarily mean you have an increased risk. If your residential setup includes shared common spaces and bathrooms, your roommate or family member may be moved to a different accommodation. If that's not possible, you should then also quarantine and follow the same guidelines:

  • Stay home—in your room, apartment, or house. Do not go out unless absolutely necessary.
  • Avoid sharing household items. Do not share drinking glasses, towels, eating utensils, bedding, or any other items until you are no longer asked to self-isolate.
  • 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, or difficulty breathing, students should immediately notify Columbia Health by calling 212-854-9355; faculty and staff should contact their primary care provider.
  • Be in touch with your professors and academic advisors so you can make the appropriate arrangements.
  • Contact your supervisor and local human resources officer who will notify CUHR Leave Management.   
  • Arrange for food to be delivered via friends, grocery delivery services, etc.
  • Wipe down high touch surfaces (e.g. doorknobs, telephones, remote controls, and bathroom surfaces) often with a standard household disinfectant such as Clorox® wipes.
  • You are expected to work remotely, if able.  Stay in daily contact with your supervisor and local HR.  While complying with a self-isolation advice, you will still be paid for standard work hours.
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. For COVID-19, there are no specific actions or quarantine recommendations for second degree or greater contacts.