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Quarantine vs. isolation: What to know after president and first lady test positive

Quarantine and isolation are different behaviors. Here's what each one means.
/ Source: TODAY

President Donald Trump revealed on Twitter early Friday that he and first lady Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19 and were beginning the quarantine process.

But while the president and the first lady said they are quarantining, NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie that the two should actually isolate for 10 days and elaborated on the the difference between the two.

“Quarantine means that you think you were exposed, but you haven’t started showing any symptoms or you haven’t tested positive," Torres said. "So, that means you need to stay home, you need to stay away from other people, but not necessarily isolate yourself from your family members."

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Torres said anyone with a positive test should avoid people for a period of 10 days. However, that stretch of time starts anew if a person who tested positive begins showing symptoms while in isolation.

“If you test positive, then you need to isolate yourself and that means you need to stay away from everybody, and that means a very strict regime for 10 days — which, if he had it Oct. 1, that means on Oct. 11, that’s his last day of isolation," he said.

Assuming all goes well, Torres said the president, who is 74, should be out of isolation on Oct. 12, provided he doesn't exhibit any symptoms before then.

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"He’s clear Oct. 12, unless he starts developing symptoms," he said. "If he starts developing symptoms that clock restarts, so that 10 days starts the day he develops symptoms. So the earliest he can get out of isolation, per CDC protocol, would be the 12th.”

The 10-day isolation period should conclude after symptoms are first experienced, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises.

Quarantine VS. Isolation
TODAY illustration

"For most persons with COVID-19 illness, isolation and precautions can generally be discontinued 10 days after symptom onset and resolution of fever for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing medications, and with improvement of other symptoms," the agency says on its website.

According to the CDC, isolation is for people who are ill, while quarantine applies to people who have been in the presence of a disease, but have not necessarily become sick themselves.

“Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick,” the agency says. “Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.”

The Department of Health and Human Services adds the same definitions, but differs slightly in describing who should be in quarantine.

“These people may have been exposed to a disease and do not know it, or they may have the disease but do not show symptoms,” the HHS says on its website.