Quarantines and Caveats

The sun sets behind the Portage Lake Lift Bridge.
The sun sets behind the Portage Lake Lift Bridge.
How people develop COVID-19 symptoms isn’t a flat line, but a bell curve, which has changed the CDC quarantine period recommendations.

Ten days? Fourteen? We dig into the caveats behind the updated COVID-19 quarantine period.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated the recommended quarantine period for a person exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. But the incubation period in the human body for the virus — up to 14 days — has not changed. What gives?

Turns out, how people develop symptoms isn’t a flat line, but a bell curve. This means that by the time most people have spent 10 days working from home and getting curbside groceries, or maybe binge-watching Netflix shows and catching up on their reading, chances are good they’re out of the proverbial woods. A small percentage of people will develop symptoms between days 11 and 14, but a 10-day quarantine period is a lot easier for most people to stomach. 

Play What Happens When You Test Positive for COVID-19? video
Preview image for What Happens When You Test Positive for COVID-19? video

What Happens When You Test Positive for COVID-19?

Epidemiologist Kelly Kamm explains what happens after your test comes back positive. 

“The public health decision of modifying the quarantine period takes into account the knowledge that more people will comply with a shorter quarantine, and the hope that more people will cooperate with reporting close contacts if the quarantine is shorter,” said Kelly Kamm, assistant professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology and epidemiologist at Michigan Technological University.

However (and this is a big however), the 10-day quarantine period must be coupled with symptom surveillance until day 14. If symptoms appear, people should immediately isolate and contact their local health department or contact tracing team to determine if they are a probable case (and schedule recommended testing with a health care provider).

COVID-19 Questions, Answered 

In this in-depth Q&A, we speak with Kamm about virus latency, isolation versus quarantine, contact tracing, and why public health guidelines continue to change. 

“It is absolutely critical with the shortened time period that individuals are honest and report symptoms because without that, they may be inappropriately released from quarantine when they are actually infectious,” Kamm said. “For example, the average incubation period is five days. If someone becomes mildly symptomatic on day five, their infectious period would be from day five to day 15, and they should be released from isolation on the morning of day 16.

“If they are under a 10-day quarantine and they don't report the symptoms, they would be released inappropriately on the morning of day 11, only halfway through their infectious period. That's a lot more dangerous in terms of spread in the population.”

Bottom line: Spread compassion, not the virus. If you think you’ve been exposed, be honest about symptoms with your health care provider, the health department, and anyone with whom you may have had close contact. It’ll ease your conscience, and perhaps your quarantine period, too.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.