UPDATED: June 4, 2020 - 10 a.m. EST
You’ve quarantined for 14 days, your friends or family have quarantined for 14 days, and none of you are showing symptoms of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Is it okay to hang out with each other? It’s a common question these days. The short answer is maybe, but it’s important to pay attention to your local laws. It’s also important to understand where the idea of staying quarantined for 14 days came from in the first place.
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The “14-day” rule comes from recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Both agencies suggested a 14-day quarantine for individuals who may have been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19. This timeframe was based on the estimated incubation period for COVID-19, which is the time between when a person is initially infected with an organism and when they first show symptoms.
Early estimates of the incubation period for COVID-19 were between two and 14 days. This came from some studies that showed the incubation period was likely in that range as well as the known incubation periods for SARS and MERS, diseases that are caused by genetically-similar viruses. More recent research shows that this incubation period is true — for most people. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the average incubation period for COVID-19 was 5.1 days, meaning the average person shows symptoms 5.1 days after infection. The same study found that 97.5% of patients develop symptoms within 11.5 days, which falls well within the 14-day quarantine period.
On top of quarantining, state and federal governments have mandated social distancing. Social distancing is more widespread and is a call for everyone — not just those who have been exposed to the disease — to avoid groups of more than 10 and maintain physical distance from others. Social distancing was an important measure to take during the peak of the pandemic, to help flatten the curve and reduce the rate of new infections.
Now that the peak has passed in many areas, some regions are easing their social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines. The world hasn’t completely gone back to normal, but some establishments are reopening and — in some cases — groups of more than 10 people are allowed again. This varies widely depending on where you live, so make sure you check out your local laws before changing your behavior.
If your local laws do allow you to get together in larger groups, whether or not you actually decide to see others after a 14-day quarantine depends on the level of risk you (and they) are willing to assume. Based on the incubation period, the chance of an asymptomatic person who has been quarantined for 14 days passing the virus on to somebody else is definitely low — but it is not zero. Additionally, COVID-19 is a fatal disease, so this is especially important to consider if you or your friends/family fall into one of the categories considered to be at higher risk for developing severe illness. These include individuals over the age of 65, individuals living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities, and individuals with certain chronic conditions.
So, What Can You Do In the Meantime?
If you’re just getting stir-crazy and need a change of scenery, it is still safe for you to go outside. If you’re careful about what you touch and remember to practice social distancing, you most likely won’t catch COVID-19 from a jog in the park.
If you need mental stimulation, institutions like Yale are providing certain courses online for free, which you can enroll in and discuss with your friends.
If you want to spend some quality time with others without the risk — luckily, we live in the world of technology. Companies like Jackbox Games make it possible to play games with others from the comfort of your own home, while companies like Zoom make it possible to video chat with several (or even hundreds) of people at once.
Social distancing does not have to equal social isolation. But managing this virus does require cooperation by everyone. Pay attention to your local laws. If they allow you to see others, keep in mind that most (but not all) people experience symptoms within 14 days, and plan accordingly. The peak may have already passed in many areas, but the pandemic isn’t over yet.