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Fact Sheet on Isolation and Quarantine

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To contain the spread of a contagious illness, public health authorities rely on many strategies. Two of these strategies are isolation and quarantine. Both are common practices in public health, and both aim to control exposure to infected or potentially infected persons. Both may be undertaken voluntarily or compelled by public health authorities. The two strategies differ in that isolation applies to persons who are known to have an illness, and quarantine applies to those who have been exposed to an illness but who may or may not become ill.

Isolation: For People Who are Ill

Isolation refers to the separation of persons who have a specific infectious illness from those who are healthy and the restriction of their movement to stop the spread of that illness. Isolation allows for the focused delivery of specialized health care to people who are ill, and it protects healthy people from getting sick. People in isolation may be cared for in their homes, in hospitals, or in designated healthcare facilities. Isolation is a standard procedure used in hospitals today for patients with tuberculosis (TB) and certain other infectious diseases. In most cases, isolation is voluntary; however, many levels of government (federal, state, and local) have basic authority to compel isolation of sick people to protect the public.

Quarantine: For People Who have been Exposed but are not Ill

Quarantine refers to the separation and restriction of movement of persons who, while not yet ill, have been exposed to an infectious agent and therefore may become infectious. Quarantine of exposed persons is a public health strategy, like isolation, that is intended to stop the spread of infectious disease. Quarantine is medically very effective in protecting the public from disease.

States generally have authority to declare and enforce quarantine within their borders. This authority varies widely from state to state, depending on state laws. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), through its Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, also is empowered to detain, medically examine, or conditionally release persons suspected of carrying certain communicable diseases. This authority derives from section 361 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 264), as amended.

SARS and Isolation

During the 2003 global SARS outbreak, patients in the United States were isolated until they were no longer infectious. This practice allowed patients to receive appropriate care, and it helped contain the spread of the illness. Seriously ill patients were cared for in hospitals. Persons with mild illness were cared for at home. Persons being cared for at home were asked to avoid contact with other people and to remain at home until 10 days after the resolution of fever, provided respiratory symptoms were absent or improving. (For more information on SARS infection control precautions, see Supplement I in Public Health Guidance for Community-Level Preparedness and Response to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS].

SARS and Quarantine

In the United States , where there was limited transmission of SARS-CoV during the 2003 SARS outbreak, neither individual nor population-based quarantine of contacts was recommended. CDC advised persons who were exposed but not symptomatic to monitor themselves for symptoms and advised home isolation and medical evaluation if symptoms appeared. Individual quarantine was an integral part of the control measures used in countries more severely affected by the 2003 SARS outbreak. Quarantine of large groups was used only in selected settings where extensive transmission was occurring.

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