Quarantine, Social Distancing, Isolation: What's the Difference?

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There has been an explosion of information, comments and opinions on COVID-19 on the internet and social media. We believe that on serious topics in general, and on public health matters in particular, it is essential to rely on facts and seek credible, expert information. Our mission at Healthy Matters remains to bring you the best information, so you can make the best choices for you and your family. 



These expressions seem to be thrown around regularly and sometimes almost interchangeably. Just months ago they held very little significance to most of us, but now it seems like you can't go anywhere without hearing one of them. To make matters more complicated, not all countries use these words in the same way. For instance, Australia uses ‘self-isolation’ and ‘self-quarantine’ synonymously. To keep it simple and help you navigate this weird new world, we've put together a short guide on these unavoidable words and explain what they mean in Hong Kong. 



Quarantine occurs when an individual has been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus. Originally from the French word "quarante" meaning forty, when individuals used to have to be quarantined for 40 days during epidemics. Because the incubation period for COVID-19 is up to 14 days, individuals who have been in direct contact need to be confined for the full incubation period to ensure that they do not develop the virus.



Infographic taken from the CHP website


In Hong Kong, there are different types of quarantines that we have become familiar with. First of all, the 2-week quarantine imposed on all Hong Kong residents arriving back into the city. This quarantine is monitored using electronic bracelets but can be done at home or at a hotel (points to note when staying in hotel for quarantine) unless you have visited an at-risk regions in the last 14 days. 


COVID-19 Inbound travellers


When you have visited an at-risk country, you will be sent to a government-run quarantine centre for further medical observation, which is the second kind of quarantine. Quarantine centres are also reserved for people who have been in direct contact with someone who contracted COVID-19.

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Social & Physical Distancing

Social distancing refers to lowering or avoiding social interactions in order to slow the spread of the virus. It can either be done by avoiding social interaction (in person) altogether or by respecting physical distancing. Physical distancing is leaving a specific amount of space (at least 1m but ideally 1.5m or 6ft) between you and people you don't live with to avoid spreading germs. This applies to people you know and in public spaces like supermarkets or post offices.  


In Hong Kong, several social and physical distancing measures have been put into place. Recently, the government restricted the number of people who can sit and eat together at a restaurant to 4 to limit social interaction, and limited the capacity of restaurants to 50% to ensure adequate physical distancing. Furthermore, the government has shut places considered ‘social’ or where close human contact occurs: like bars, beauty parlours, karaoke bars...



Social Distancing Infographic from the CHP Website



Isolation applies to someone who has contracted the virus. They will be completely isolated from everyone until they make a full recovery and test negative. In most countries, isolation will occur in a hospital but in some countries and when the patients aren't too sick isolation can take place in the patient's home.  

In Hong Kong, self-isolation in the case of a positive diagnosis is not authorised. Instead, someone who tested positive will automatically be admitted into a public hospital and held there, without contact with friends or family, until they’ve made a full recovery.  


Find more of the CHP’s guidelines for the general public here. 


While isolation and quarantine are only necessary in specific situations, physical and social distancing is something we should all try our best to practice to slow the spread of COVID-19. We hope that this guide helped you figure your way around some of this vocabulary and don’t forget to sign up to our newsletter for more articles about health!

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This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and is not sponsored. It is informative only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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