What is coronavirus quarantine? Can it stop COVID-19?

What Americans should know about quarantine, isolation, containment areas, lockdowns in US

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Monday, March 23, 2020
Quarantine: What does it mean? Can it stop coronavirus?
Dr. Jennifer Ashston, ABC's chief medical correspondent, and Dan Abrams, ABC's chief legal analyst, discuss what quarantine means for Americans.

As cases of the new coronavirus at the center of global outbreak top 1,000 in the United States, some Americans are beginning to face the realities of quarantine and isolation.

While these measures are taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many wonder if and how quarantines, isolations and lockdowns could affect their lives and communities. Here is what you need to know:

What does quarantine mean?

A quarantine separates and restricts movement for people who are exposed to a disease but not symptomatic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The purpose of a quarantine is to prevent the possible spread of a contagion.

Isolation, on the other hand, separates sick, potentially infectious people from healthy people.

"When you take the step of quarantine, whether it's mandatory or voluntary, it is based on the assumption that you have been exposed and therefore that you may be positive for an infectious disease," said Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC's chief medical correspondent. "So it's not a home vacation. It's not a staycation. It's hard to do, and you don't do it a little bit. You can't be a little pregnant. You home quarantine. You don't leave your house."

Do quarantines actually work?

Mandating quarantines and isolations help "flatten the curve," or slow the spread, to protect vulnerable populations, Dr. Ashton said.

Vulnerable populations include adults 60 years of age and older and people with preexisting conditions.

"It buys time, and the clock is ticking on this. So every day matters," Dr. Ashton said.

Using CDC data, cartoonist Toby Morris created a graphic to illustrate this point. By keeping the number of daily reported cases as low as possible, Americans can "flatten the curve" in the relationship between the number of reported cases and time since the first reported case. A slower spread decreases the chances of overwhelming the health care system.

Can the government mandate a quarantine? Can I get arrested for breaking a quarantine?

It depends.

Under the Public Health Service Act, quarantines can serve "police power" functions for "severe acute respiratory syndromes," and COVID-19 meets this definition.

Federal, state and local health orders may be issued to enforce isolation or quarantine for coronavirus cases, according to the CDC.

"You can absolutely legally enforce a quarantine," said Dan Abrams, ABC's chief legal analyst. "[Government officials] need to tell the people, 'You must do this. We think you are at risk.' Then, if they refuse or they seem unwilling to [quarantine], then you can actually go state by state, municipality by municipality, by how that would occur, but there's another phase. 'You're saying you don't want to do this? We'll make you do this,' and it is legally enforceable."

New York state, for example, has mandatory quarantine and isolation protocols for people who display symptoms of COVID-19 and/or had been in close contact with someone who tested positive.

Once a mandatory quarantine is issued in New York, local health departments must make sure the affected person can self-quarantine from other members of his or her household, access food, and keep a supply of face masks, among other requirements.

Quarantined people in New York may walk outside on their own properties but must not come within six feet of their neighbors, and health officials are required to check in on them daily.

New York state had not specified how to handle a violation, and mandatory quarantine protocols may vary state by state.

On a federal level, a mandatory quarantine was issued for passengers evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

What is a 'containment area'? Is it different from a quarantine?

State officials in New York are using the term "containment area" to describe the part of New Rochelle, north of New York City, where closures will be enforced.

National Guard troops will also help clean public spaces and deliver food to people who are in quarantine within the 1-mile radius.

But they stressed that this isn't a lockdown.

People who aren't personally quarantined will be able to leave their homes and go to work or elsewhere. Local businesses can remain open. Residents or visitors are free to walk the sidewalks.

Only those who have been exposed to or have symptoms of the disease need to be in quarantine or isolation.

RELATED: Busting COVID-19 coronavirus myths

New Rochelle isn't on lockdown, but the entire country of Italy is. Can that happen in the U.S.?

Theoretically, yes, but this is highly unlikely, Abrams said.

"The Supreme Court has ruled broadly on this kind of issue, which is when the government needs to, in an emergency situation like this, it can implement pretty draconian measures. We're seeing state by state declare state of emergencies, and that's also relevant legally because in a lot of states, you need a state of emergency to be declared before you can take certain action," he said.

Will I lose my job if I'm quarantined? How can I earn money if I can't work from home?

At the moment, this answer would vary case by case and state by state. Anyone whose job is threatened by a quarantine should contact his or her state's department of labor.

Washington is currently considering stimulus measures that include aid to wage earners missing work because of illness or quarantine who don't receive sick pay, special loans for small businesses, subsidies or tax relief to affected industries like airlines, hotels and cruise ships, and aid to certain parts of the country bearing the brunt of virus illnesses and deaths.

RELATED: Symptoms, prevention, and how to prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak in the US

The Associated Press contributed to this report.