Shoppers stand in line inside a large warehouse retailer, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Kennesaw, Georgia. Amid all the fears, quarantines and stockpiling of food, it has been easy to ignore the fact that more than 60,000 people have recovered from the coronavirus spreading around the globe. Credit: Mike Stewart | AP

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There are three tactics experts recommend to people with various risks of coming into contact with COVID-19, who have already come into contact with it, or who are already sick: social distancing, self-quarantine and self-isolation.

So, what’s the difference between the three? The distinctions can be a little unclear. Here are some tips to help you make the right decision.

Social distancing

Social distancing has been recommended by the Center for the Disease Control as a means to increase the physical spaces between people, thus reducing the rate of transmission. This means restricting yourself from most unnecessary social gatherings — no concerts, movie screenings, festivals, crowded bars, restaurants or other public events that might attract large groups of people. Many of these events have already been canceled in Maine, due to Gov. Janet Mills’ recommendation that all gatherings of 250 people or more be canceled.

While social distancing has yet to be officially mandated by the CDC, it has been recommended by that organization as well as many others, including by Gov. Mills, as one of the most effective means of lowering the spread of the disease.

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Social distancing does not mean you can’t leave the house. You can go to work if it’s safe to do so, as well as grocery shop, go to the pharmacy, and run other errands — just wash or sanitize your hands before and after you go out in public (and during, if possible). You can also go outside, whether it’s your own backyard or a public park or preserve. You should not, however, travel very far — stay in your hometown for the most part, if possible.

Though you can leave the house to resupply, it’s recommended that you stock up on food that has a long shelf life anyway, like dry and frozen goods. It’s also recommended you contact your doctor to get a 90-day supply of any medications you take, and to make sure you’ve got plenty of soap and some hand sanitizer, since you’ll be washing your hands constantly.

One thing you don’t need to do while practicing social distancing is to wear a mask — leave the masks for people that are in self-quarantine or self-isolation, both of which are explained below.

The important thing to remember is to practice proper hygiene, and to stay at least six feet away from other people, so you maintain that all-important distance. The less close contact people have with each other, the less the virus is able to infect more people.


Self-quarantine is a more restrictive tactic, wherein a person that feels sick or may have been exposed to the coronavirus stays home and does not leave for 14 days. During those 14 days, the quarantined person should take their temperature twice a day and monitor their symptoms, which in the case of COVID-19 generally includes a fever, coughing and trouble breathing.

While those in self-quarantine can go outside to do things like taking the dog out, or getting mail from the mailbox, it is recommended that any other movement be restricted, including grocery shopping and other errands. If you do leave the house, you should wear a mask.

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Normally, a self-quarantine would include medical appointments but in this case it is strongly recommended that you contact your doctor or local medical facility to see if they want you to come in or not, or when the best time would be for you to safely come in. This includes treatment like dialysis.

Who should self-quarantine? According to the CDC, anyone who has come back from China, Iran, South Korea or Europe should self-quarantine themselves for 14 days, starting as soon as they return home. Additionally, anyone that has come into contact with a person that has a known or suspected case of COVID-19 should also quarantine. Finally, a person that is experiencing symptoms similar to those of COVID-19 (fever, coughing, trouble breathing) should consider self-quarantine, even if they have not come into contact with the virus.


Self-isolation is the most severe tactic used to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and the CDC is mandating it for those that have been diagnosed with the disease.

In this situation, people in self-isolation not only should not leave the house for any reason — they should also stay in one room, and use a separate bathroom from anyone else that lives in the house, if possible. Stay away from other people as much as possible. Do not share any household items with anyone including cups, plates and utensils, bedding and towels. Keep air circulation flowing as best you can, whether that means turning on a fan or opening a window if it’s warm enough outside.

[Interactive map: The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in each state]

Make sure you keep your house clean. Sanitize high-touch surfaces daily, like phones, doorknobs, keyboards, remotes, fridge door handles and bathroom fixtures. This one is a good idea for everyone, regardless of disease status, but is mandatory for those in self-isolation.

If you are so sick that you require emergency medical treatment, your doctor or first responders will instruct you on the safest way to travel to the hospital. Such treatment may be needed if you are experiencing severe difficulties in breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, bluish lips or confusion or inability to arouse.

What happens next?

After 14 days of either self-quarantine or self-isolation, if your symptoms are under control, and if your doctor gives you the go-ahead, you may begin leaving the house. It’s likely that you may still want to practice social distancing for a while longer, just to be on the safe side.

And no matter when the pandemic begins to slow down, or how you’re feeling, or where you’ve been, remember: cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.

Watch: What older adults need to know about COVID-19

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.