[Ask Dr Chiu] What’s the difference between quarantine and isolation?

[Ask Dr Chiu] What’s the difference between quarantine and isolation?

[Ask Dr Chiu] What’s the difference between quarantine and isolation?



5  Mins Read

As the number of novel coronavirus cases is on the rise, you will be finding an increasing amount of news coverage devoted to the outbreak every day.  The news covers a wide range of content, including the places that confirmed patients have been to or the public transport they have taken, the locations of quarantine facilities, and buildings where individuals are under home quarantine.  While these are the most talked about topics with our family and friends these days, do you fully understand what these terms actually mean?

 Understanding Close Contact vs Quarantine vs Isolation

Close Contact

According to the United States Center of Disease Control (CDC), close contact refers to being within approximately 6 feet (2 meters) with an infected person, or within the room or care area with an infected person for a prolonged period of time or having direct contact with infectious secretions of an infected person while not wearing protective equipment.  It is therefore obvious that close contact often occurs with family members who lived with the infected person or healthcare professional who looked after them. Currently, there are few confirmed cases that appeared to have contracted the novel coronavirus through close contact with family members.


Having close contact with an infected person increases the risk of being infected and this is the reason for quarantine. Quarantine is the separation and restriction of movement of people who are not diagnosed ill but may have been exposed to a contagious infection for observation and monitoring. A person under quarantine is therefore not sick nor a patient. A quarantine facility is also not a place to treat patients, so do not distress yourself if you are around. If the person under quarantine develops symptoms, the person will then be immediately transferred to a hospital.


In contrast, isolation is the separation and restriction of movement of an ill individual with confirmed or suspected infection for the purpose of preventing disease transmission.  Isolation usually happens within hospital settings, where there are infection control measures and facilities, such as putting the patient in a negative pressure room. Healthcare professionals who look after these patients need to wear personal protective equipment. All novel coronavirus isolation cases in Hong Kong are being sent to the Princess Margaret Hospital in the first place; however, as the number of cases continue to rise, isolation facilities from other hospitals are also being used.

Are you feeling a bit more relieved as now you have a better understanding on the coronavirus outbreak and some of the related terms? Hang in there, other than closely monitoring the development of the novel coronavirus outbreak; practicing personal hygiene measures and exercising personal vigilance are also important protective measures in avoiding contracting the virus. Stay safe, everyone!

Dr Alexander Chiu, Medical Director, Health and Employee Benefits, AXA Hong Kong and Macau