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Social Distancing, Quarantine, & Isolation During An Infectious Disease Outbreak

March 26, 2020


What Is Social Distancing?

Social distancing is a way to keep people from interacting closely or frequently enough to spread an infectious disease. Schools and other gathering places such as movie theaters may close, and sports events and religious services may be cancelled.

What Is Quarantine?

Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who have been exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. It lasts long enough to ensure the person has not contracted an infectious disease.

What Is Isolation?

Isolation prevents the spread of an infectious disease by separating people who are sick from those who are not. It lasts as long as the disease is contagious.

What to Expect: Typical Reactions

Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, such as an infectious disease outbreak, that require social distancing, quarantine, or isolation. People may feel:

Anxiety, worry, or fear related to:

  • Their own health status
  • The health status of others whom they may have exposed to the disease
  • The resentment that friends and family may feel if they need to go into quarantine as a result of contact
  • The experience of monitoring themselves, or being monitored by others for signs and symptoms of the disease
  • Time taken off from work and the potential loss of income and job security
  • The challenges of securing things they need, such as groceries and personal care items
  • Concern about being able to effectively care for children or others
  • Uncertainty or frustration about how long they will need to remain in this situation, and uncertainty about the future
  • Loneliness associated with feeling cut off from the world and from loved ones
  • Anger if they think they were exposed to the disease because of others’ negligence
  • Boredom and frustration because they may not be able to work or engage in regular day-to-day activities
  • Uncertainty or ambivalence about the situation
  • A desire to use alcohol or drugs to cope
  • Symptoms of depression, such as feelings of hopelessness, changes in appetite, or sleeping too little or too much
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as intrusive distressing memories, flashbacks (reliving the event), nightmares, changes in thoughts and mood, and being easily startled

If you or a loved one experience any of these reactions over a period of two to four weeks or longer, contact your health care provider or one of the resources at the end of this article.

Ways to Support Yourself during Social Distancing, Quarantine, and Isolation

Understand the Risk

Consider the real risk of harm to yourself and others around you. The public perception of risk during a situation such as an infectious disease outbreak is often inaccurate. Media coverage may create the impression that people are in immediate danger when really the risk for infection may be very low. Take steps to get the facts:

  • Stay up to date on what is happening, while limiting your media exposure. Avoid watching or listening to news reports 24/7 since this tends to increase anxiety and worry. Remember that children are especially affected by what they hear and see on television.
  • Look to credible sources for information on the infectious disease outbreak:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30329-4027
1 (800) 232-4636

World Health Organization
Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization
525 23rd Street
NW Washington, DC 20037
(202) 974-3000

Be Your Own Advocate

Speaking out about your needs is particularly important if you are in quarantine, since you may not be in a hospital or other facility where your basic needs are met. Ensure you have what you need to feel safe, secure, and comfortable.

  • Work with local, state, or national health officials to find out how you can arrange for groceries and toiletries to be delivered to your home as needed.
  • Inform health care providers or health authorities of any needed medications and work with them to ensure that you continue to receive those medications.

Educate Yourself

Health care providers and health authorities should provide information on the disease, its diagnosis, and treatment.

  • Do not be afraid to ask questions—clear communication with a health care provider may help reduce any distress associated with social distancing, quarantine, or isolation.
  • Ask for written information when available.
  • Ask a family member or friend to obtain information in the event that you are unable to secure this information on your own.

Work With Your Employer to Reduce Financial Stress

If you’re unable to work during this time, you may experience stress related to your job status or financial situation.

  • Provide your employer with a clear explanation of why you are away from work.
  • Contact the U.S. Department of Labor toll-free at 1 (866) 487-2365 about the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows U.S. employees up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for serious medical conditions, or to care for a family member with a serious medical condition.
  • Contact your utility providers, cable and Internet provider, and other companies from whom you get monthly bills to explain your situation and request alternative bill payment arrangements as needed.

Connect With Others

Reaching out to people you trust is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety, depression, loneliness, and boredom during social distancing, quarantine, and isolation. You can:

  • Use the telephone, email, text messaging, and social media to connect with friends, family, and others.
  • Talk “face to face” with friends and loved ones using Skype or FaceTime.
  • If approved by health authorities and your health care providers, arrange for your friends and loved ones to bring you newspapers, movies, and books.
  • Sign up for emergency alerts via text or email to ensure you get updates as soon as they are available.
  • Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) free 24-hour Disaster Distress Helpline at 1 (800) 985-5990, if you feel lonely or need support.
  • Use the Internet, radio, and television to keep up with local, national, and world events.
  • If you need to connect with someone because of an ongoing alcohol or drug problem, consider calling your local Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous offices.

Talk to Your Doctor

If you are in a medical facility, you may have access to health care providers who can answer your questions. However, if you are quarantined at home and you’re worried about physical symptoms you or your loved ones may be experiencing, call your doctor or other health care provider.

  • Ask your provider whether it would be possible to schedule remote appointments via Skype or FaceTime for mental health, substance use, or physical health needs.
  • In the event that your doctor is unavailable and you are feeling stressed or are in crisis, call the hotline numbers listed at the end of this tip sheet for support.

Use Practical Ways to Cope and Relax

  • Relax your body often by doing things that work for you-take deep breaths, stretch, meditate or pray, or engage in activities you enjoy.
  • Pace yourself between stressful activities and do something fun after a hard task.
  • Talk about your experiences and feelings to loved ones and friends, if you find it helpful.
  • Maintain a sense of hope and positive thinking; consider keeping a journal where you write down things you are grateful for or that are going well.

After Social Distancing, Quarantine, or Isolation

You may experience mixed emotions, including a sense of relief. If you were isolated because you had the illness, you may feel sadness or anger because friends and loved ones may have unfounded fears of contracting the disease from contact with you, even though you have been determined not to be contagious.

The best way to end this common fear is to learn about the disease and the actual risk to others. Sharing this information will often calm fears in others and allow you to reconnect with them.

If you or your loved ones experience symptoms of extreme stress—such as trouble sleeping, problems with eating too much or too little, inability to carry out routine daily activities, or using drugs or alcohol to cope—speak to a health care provider or call one of the hotlines listed to the right for a referral.

If you are feeling overwhelmed with emotions such as sadness, depression, anxiety, or feel like you want to harm yourself or someone else, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273- 8255.

Helpful Resources Hotlines

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline
Toll-Free: 1 (800) 985-5990 (English and español)
SMS: Text TalkWithUs to 66746
SMS (español): “Hablanos” al 66746
TTY: 1 (800) 846-8517
Website (English): http://www.disasterdistress.samhsa.gov
Website (español): https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/espanol

SAMHSA’s National Helpline
Toll-Free: 1 (800) 662-HELP (24/7/365 Treatment Referral Information Service in English and español)
Website: http://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Toll-Free (English): 1 (800) 273-8255
Toll-Free (español): 1 (888) 628-9454
TTY: 1 (800) 799-4889
Website (English): http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Website (español): http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/gethelp/spanish.aspx

Treatment Locator
Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator Website: http://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/locator/home

For help finding treatment call 1 (800) 662-4357 or visit https://findtreatment.gov/

SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center
Toll-Free: 1 (800) 308-3515
Website: http://www.samhsa.gov/dtac

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