You are “exposed” if you spent time around someone with known or suspected COVID — someone we call an “index case.”
If you’re exposed, you should isolate yourself in your home for 14 days, starting from the last day of your exposure. Do not leave except for essential activities. You should not go to work or school, and you should not go to visit a doctor’s office or hospital (unless you are sick and need care.) As an alternative, there are quarantine recommendations that are shorter than 14 days — these aren’t as safe, but may be reasonable for some families. Details of these alternatives are in the last question on this page.
Within your home, you should stay 6′ or more away from other people, or even better — stay in your own room. Try not to share a bathroom. If you cannot stay 6′ from other people, you should wear a mask.
What do you mean by “Index Case”?
An “Index Case” is someone who has tested positive for COVID, or has symptoms of COVID but hasn’t been tested yet.
An “Index Case” becomes contagious 2 days before they developed symptoms, or 2 days prior to their positive test. Click here for more information about exactly who counts as an index case, and for how long they are contagious.
How long “counts” as an exposure?
In general, an exposure “counts” if you’ve been with the index case for more than 15 minutes. The 15 minutes is cumulative over a 24 hour period — it doesn’t have to be all at once.
Some situations increase your risk of exposure, meaning you may count as exposed even if less than 15 minutes have passed. Singing, screaming, or talking loudly while facing someone increases your risk, and you should consider yourself exposed after just a few minutes. And if the index case coughed or sneezed on you, even once, you “count” as exposed.
How close “counts” as an exposure?
If you’ve been within 6 feet of the index case for 15 minutes or more, that means you’ve been exposed.
Situations that decrease your risk of exposure include wearing a mask and being outdoors. Still, even then, if you’re within 6 feet of an Index Case for more than 15 minutes, that “counts” as an exposure.
What if I’m wearing a mask?
A well-fitted medical or cloth mask can help prevent transmission, especially if both the index case and you were wearing them. If both of you were wearing masks, transmission is much less likely, unless you spent a lot of time together or the index case was coughing or sneezing.
Current guidelines from the CDC suggest that for community exposures (ie outside of a workplace or healthcare facility), you should go into quarantine if you’ve been exposed, even if you were wearing a mask.
For healthcare workers on the job, the CDC considers a medical facemask adequate protection – you do not have to go into quarantine after an exposure. Note if the person who was infectious was not wearing a mask, you should also have been wearing eye protection (if not, into quarantine you go.) It is best if healthcare workers always wear a mask and eye protection, so an inadvertent exposure doesn’t drive too many first-responders into quarantine. The CDC also says that while not on the job, healthcare workers should follow the community exposure guidelines, above.
What if I’ve already had COVID?
We do not know if having COVID makes you immune, or how long the immunity lasts. But it seems likely that there is at least some degree of protection. The CDC says that if you’ve tested positive for COVID in the last three months, you do not have to quarantine or get tested after an exposure — you essentially do not “count” as an exposed individual.
Should I get tested?
The most important step if you’re exposed is to quarantine. It can also be helpful to get tested to help determine who else has to go into quarantine. The Georgia Department of Health suggests testing 10 days after exposure.
As long as you have no symptoms, it is not essential to get tested. But testing is especially a good idea if you’ve potentially exposed at-risk people in your work or home.
What if I test negative?
If you have no symptoms and get a COVID test that’s negative, this does not change the recommendations for your quarantine. Even if you test negative, you should complete your quarantine for 14 days. This is because you can potentially become positive any time during that 14 days.
What if I test positive?
If you test positive, even with no symptoms, you are now an “index case” and should follow the recommendations in the “I’m an index case” section.
What if I start developing symptoms?
If you develop symptoms of COVID (or test positive for COVID), follow the instructions on the “You’re an index case” page.
If your test comes back negative, you should still complete your 14 day quarantine as an exposed individual.
Who do I need to tell?
As an exposed individual, you may need to tell your employer or school that you cannot come in. However, it is not necessary to tell everyone you’ve seen — you are not an index case, and you don’t have suspected or proven COVID. However, if you do develop symptoms, you need to follow the “You’re an index case” instructions to inform your contacts.
What should I tell people who’ve been exposed to me?
You can tell them you’ve started isolating yourself, but since you are not an index case (you have no symptoms), your contacts do not have to do anything special. They should continue to follow the “You’re everyone else” instructions.
If you do develop symptoms or test positive, you’ll need to tell everyone who’ve been in contact with for the two days prior to symptoms or the two days prior to your positive test.
How long should I isolate? When can I stop considering myself “exposed”?
You should stay in isolation for 14 days, regardless of testing results (if you choose to get tested.) After this 14 days, if you have no symptoms, you can follow the “You’re everyone else” instructions.”
What if it’s too difficult to quarantine for 14 days?
Quarantining for 14 days after an exposure virtually eliminates the risk that you will inadvertently spread COVID. But we know that a full 14 day quarantine can be difficult financially and emotionally.
As an alternative, the CDC has proposed two other ways to quarantine after an exposure:
(1) Quarantine without testing for 10 days. As long as you remain healthy without any symptoms, you can end quarantine after 10 days. With this method, your risk of spreading COVID after your 10 day quarantine is probably about 1% (though it may be as high as 10%).
(2) Quarantine for a minimum of 7 days, and get tested at day 5 or 6. If the test is negative and you have no symptoms, end quarantine after 7 days (or more). With this method, your risk of later spreading COVID is probably about 5% (though it may be as high as 12%).
These two alternatives are not as safe as a full 14 day quarantine, but may be reasonable for some families. People who end exposure quarantine before 14 days must be extra careful — they may still become contagious — and must isolate and test if any symptoms begin.