Defining COVID-19 Terms: Isolation vs. Quarantine

April 7, 2020

quarantine printed on a piece of paper


Elizabeth (Izzy) Montgomery, MPA
Policy Analyst


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In this installment in our series explaining key terms and phrases used by public health officials in discussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, we look at the terms “isolation” and “quarantine.”

In a previous post, we wrote about social distancing, or intentionally increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness (in the case of COVID-19, a recommended 6 feet of separation between yourself and others). “Isolation” and “quarantine,” two other terms often used in reference to avoiding the spread of illness, have similar but distinct meanings.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), “isolation“ is defined as separating “sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick.” In the context of COVID-19 containment, the term “self-isolation” is typically used to describe an action that individuals who are confirmed positive, awaiting test results, or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms should take to mitigate spreading infection.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, if you are confirmed to have COVID-19 or have symptoms consistent with COVID-19, it is necessary to stay home unless you must seek medical care. Within your own home, it is also advised to separate yourself from other family members and pets to avoid spreading infection, an action known as “home isolation.” Some best practices for caring for someone with COVID-19 include having a dedicated “sick room” for the ill person and avoiding the sharing of personal items such as dishes, towels, and bedding between the sick person and other members of the household.

HHS defines “quarantine“ as separating and restricting “the movement of people who were exposed to a disease to see if they become sick. These people may have been exposed to a disease and do not know it, or they may have the disease and not show symptoms.” While both isolation and quarantine have the same objective, isolation is intended for those who are already sick and could spread infection to otherwise healthy people.

Government officials can impose quarantine measures to keep infections from spreading. The federal government has power, derived from the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, to detain, medically examine, and release persons entering the U.S. or traveling between states who are suspected of carrying communicable diseases.

States have “police power” under the U.S. Constitution to protect the health and safety of residents through quarantine. Local governments can exercise only those authorities granted to them by their respective state governments. In Arkansas, public health authority is heavily centralized at the state level, while in states such as North Carolina, local governments have some delegated public health authority through state statute.

The Arkansas Department of Health has issued COVID-19 guidance for self-home quarantine. The guidance recommends that individuals who have had close contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive or have traveled from New York state or internationally in the past 14 days be in quarantine for 14 days.


Read more about the pandemic on our website’s COVID-19 in Arkansas page.