Understanding Isolation, Quarantine, and Social Distancing

Alt: Two doodles practice social distancing by standing 6 feet apart.

Here at We ❤ Health Literacy Headquarters, of course we’re paying close attention to health officials’ efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus. And we can’t help but notice they’re using lots of words that seem to mean the same thing — like isolation, quarantine, and social distancing.

As you’ve surely noticed, people are panicking — and confusing terms won’t help. The possibility that you’ll need to quarantine yourself is especially worrisome if you don’t really understand what that means!

As health communicators, our job isn’t just to report that isolation, quarantine, and social distancing are happening — it’s also to help people understand those terms. If you need a refresher yourself, check out our plain language definitions:

  • Isolation is for people who already have the virus. It means keeping them separated from people who don’t have it. Hospitals are isolating people with COVID-19 from other patients, for example.
  • Quarantine is for people who may have been exposed to the virus. It also means keeping them separated from other people — like a “wait and see” approach in case they turn out to be infected. This usually means staying at home and avoiding contact with other people for 14 days.
  • Social distancing is for everyone! It’s a catchall term for a variety of efforts to prevent the virus from spreading in communities by keeping people farther apart. When schools close or sporting events are canceled, that’s social distancing. Or when a restaurant seats its customers at least 6 feet apart? Yep, social distancing.

And what’s with the 6-feet rule, you ask? That’s how far experts think respiratory droplets containing coronavirus can travel through the air when someone sneezes or coughs.

Oh, and while you’re helping your audiences understand all these words, make sure they know what a pandemic is. And try to bust a few coronavirus myths and misconceptions while you’re at it.

The bottom line: If you’re writing about isolation, quarantine, and social distancing, explain these terms in words your readers understand.

Tweet about it: Need to explain isolation, quarantine, and social distancing in your #coronavirus #HealthLit materials? @CommunicateHlth can help: https://bit.ly/2U10EAu


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