From Social Distancing to Self-Isolation: Your Guide to What Different Pandemic Terms Mean for Your Family

Understanding coronavirus safety measures can mean the difference between making things better and making them much worse. Here's the vocabulary you need to know.

The coronavirus outbreak has come with its own vocabulary, filled with terms used interchangeably and often. But for parents struggling to keep tabs on kids at home, much less understand the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) specific guidelines for unique scenarios, we've made a cheat sheet. Here's everything you need to know about coronavirus safety measures and what they mean for your family—AKA, who should be doing what and for how long.

High angle view of family using various technologies in living room at home
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Social Distancing

What does it mean?

Social distancing means you keep a 6-foot personal bubble around yourself anytime you are outside your home. This includes grocery shopping, exercising, and even household tasks as basic as taking out the trash or walking the dog. If you see your neighbor across the street, no hugs or handshakes. This can be especially difficult for little ones to understand if they're in a lovey developmental stage, so consider making a family rule for waving at people instead of getting within 6 feet.

COVID-19 is spread mostly through respiratory droplets—think coughs and sneezes, according to Robert Frenck, M.D., medical director of the division of infectious diseases at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. So “if you are within 5 feet of someone and the person coughs or sneezes in your direction, droplets containing the virus can land on you. Your hands can then spread the virus to your eyes, mouth, or nose, and this may cause you to become infected.”

Current government recommendations ask people to avoid nonessential trips out of the house; people should not go to gyms, libraries, or restaurants. This includes small dinner parties and playdates: It's time to postpone your family's social calendar. And heart-wrenchingly, it means choosing not to visit elderly or ill relatives—they're some of the most at risk for serious and sometimes deadly complications from COVID-19. The best thing you can do to keep them safe is to stay home.

But some experts say "social distancing" should be renamed "distant socializing" to remind us to keep that 6-foot bubble, but remain connected with our loved ones via texts, calls, or video chats.

Who should do it?

Everyone should be practicing social distancing right now. It's the number one way we can all flatten the curve of coronavirus infections to make sure our health care system has the capacity to care for the people who do get sick. In other words, even if you're young and healthy and your kids are young and healthy, you want to make sure you all stay that way so the hospitals aren't overwhelmed with cases all at once.

How long should we practice social distancing?

Right now, the federal government has mandated social distancing measures until the end of March, but many experts say we should expect to continue into April or longer. Different states have confirmed different deadlines for when individual state governments will reassess whether social distancing will continue. But to keep vulnerable populations (and ourselves) safe, assume we're hanging out inside until told otherwise by health officials.

Stay at Home and Shelter in Place Orders

What does it mean?

Many states have issued stay at home or shelter in place orders, meaning your family should stay inside the house except for certain approved activities. These orders keep even healthy people at home to flatten the curve of infections; if no one is coming into contact with anyone they're not already living with, the spread of coronavirus cases will slow.

Approved activities often include grocery shopping (for your family or people unable to leave their homes), medical appointments, and social-distanced exercise. But the details vary state to state and sometimes county to county. Check your local government website for full details.

Who should do it?

States with stay at home or shelter in place orders include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

How long should we stay at home?

Dates depend on your local authority, but many states are asking everyone to stay home for at least the next few weeks.

Self-Observation and Self-Monitoring

What does it mean?

Self-observation means you are watching for symptoms of COVID-19, while self-monitoring means you and your family are taking your temperatures twice a day and watching for signs of a cough or difficulty breathing.

You should limit exposure to others during this time, but if you can't order in your groceries, you can go to the store. “It likely is harder to maintain distancing in the market,” says Dr. Frenck. “But, you need to eat. So, try to keep your distance.”

And keep safety measures in mind. “Wash your hands before and after, and maintain distance from those who are in the store,” says Niket Sonpal, M.D., Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine adjunct professor of clinical medicine in the Department of Biomedical Sciences. “Only touch what you plan to buy and be efficient with your time there.”

Who should do it?

If you're worried about exposure in your personal life, you can self-observe for symptoms at home. Or if you've recently traveled abroad, your local health department or the CDC might ask you to self-monitor.

How long should we self-observe or self-monitor?

The incubation period for the coronavirus is between 2 and 14 days, so to be safe, watch for symptoms or take your temperature for 14 days from your potential exposure to the coronavirus.

Wondering about walking the dog or jogging around your block? If you’re maintaining 6 feet of social distance, it should be OK. However, according to Dr. Sonpal, “if you have any symptoms at all, then the answer is no.”


What does it mean?

Self-quarantining is the next step up from self-observing or self-monitoring. This means you know you have been exposed to the coronavirus and should take precautions to isolate yourself so you don't spread the disease.

Who should do it?

If you’ve traveled to a high-risk destination (including China, Iran, or Europe) or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, you should self-quarantine.

How long should we stay at home?

Just like a self-monitoring period, you should stay home for 14 days until the incubation period of the coronavirus has passed.

Stir crazy by day seven? Dr. Frenck suggests, “If you are in a private place, such as your yard, I don’t see a problem with going outside to exercise as it should be easy to maintain social distancing. I do not think it would be a good idea to go into public places to exercise as you may accidentally expose someone.”


Self-isolation applies to people who have confirmed cases of COVID-19. All the same stay at home rules apply, even if you’re not showing severe symptoms. But if someone is sick within a shared house, there are additional steps you can take. “Maintaining social distancing within a house is not fun, but it is possible," says Dr. Frenck. "Obviously, if you are parents with a young child, there is only so much that is possible."

Hand-washing is crucial and Dr. Frenck reminds parents not to touch their faces after caring for a sick child or partner. If at all possible, sick family members should stick to one room of the house and not use communal dishes. You should also clean common spaces such as bathrooms after someone who is sick has used them.

“If one parent is sick or exposed, you need to isolate yourself and have the other parent assume parenting responsibilities,” says Dr. Frenck. “I know that is easier said than done, but maintaining a separation of space is critical to stop the spread of the infection.”

Who should do it?

You should self-isolate if you have a positive test for COVID-19 or if you develop symptoms of the disease, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, or fatigue.

But some people who have COVID-19 will never develop symptoms and most people will have mild or moderate symptoms. "The problem is we don’t know who will have mild symptoms and who will have more severe,” explains Dr. Frenck. "Until we have resources to rapidly test people to know they haven’t been infected, to help decrease spread, people with respiratory symptoms should assume they have been infected.”

How long should we self-isolate?

If you cannot get a COVID-19 test, your self-isolation can end 72 hours after your fever ends, according to the CDC. If you don't have a fever, plan to self-isolate for seven days after your symptoms began.

The Bottom Line

While understanding these terms can put order to some of the chaos we’re all feeling, it doesn’t much matter what you call it as long as you’re staying home as much as possible to do your part to stop the spread of the coronavirus. As Dr. Frenck put it, “We can have the big party once we have weathered the pandemic.”

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