Update of COVID Infection, Exposure, and Testing

By Robert L. Moore, MD, MPH, MBA, Chief Medical Officer

You have probably read news stories of a problem with the state system for reporting and tracking COVID testing, and the slow turnaround time for COVID test results from many lab vendors.  When this is combined with the substantial increase in cases and deaths we were seeing before the state database issue, this means the local health departments are hobbled in any attempts to try to control the pandemic with contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.  This impacts essential businesses and will impact  counties in the PHC region that will have the option of opening schools.

This affects us in three ways:

  1. A change in advice on the role of testing when we, or those in our family “bubble,” have symptoms or are exposed to someone with symptoms.
  2. Instead of relying on county contact tracers, we all need to become knowledgeable in the essential advice contact tracers give, and work collectively to spread this information in our families and the communities we interact with.
  3. We all need to redouble our efforts to slow the spread of infection: diligently practice physical distancing (especially by limiting travel, large gatherings, and crowded settings), appropriate use of masks/facial coverings (covering nose and mouth when in a public setting, especially indoors or when continuous physical distancing is not possible), as well as hand hygiene.

Potential COVID-19 Symptoms and Potential COVID-19 Exposure: Updated recommendations

General Principles

The two reasons you may be at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission:

  1. You are infected with COVID-19 and have symptoms.
  2. You are infected with COVID-19 and have no symptoms (and probably don’t know you’re infected).

Isolation and quarantine are different:

  • Isolation is for either laboratory confirmed COVID-19 infections or for individuals with symptoms suspicious for COVID-19.  The time period for isolation is 10 days after the symptoms began or after the date of the test (if the person was asymptomatic), provided the patient has no fever for 24 hours while not taking a medication that would suppress fever AND any symptoms are substantially improved.  If a person is severely immunocompromised, the isolation period is extended to 24 days.  COVID test results do not change the isolation period.
  • Quarantine is for asymptomatic close contacts of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection or situations with high risk of transmission, such as gatherings of un-masked individuals or returning from travel to a high prevalence area.  The time period for quarantine is 14 days after the last day of exposure to the person or situation that put the person at risk.  If a person under quarantine develops symptoms, they become a suspected case and must begin a 10 day isolation period.  Due to the shortage of COVID testing, testing for all those in quarantine may or may not be possible.

If one person in a household bubble is isolated due to confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection, the entire household would be subject to quarantine.  The isolated person must be separated from everyone in their household bubble who are now in quarantine, to reduce ongoing spread of infection from the isolated person and the quarantined people.  Exceptions may be made for parents with small children.

If some members of the house are quarantined, say because of a workplace exposure or recent attendance at gathering without masks, they must be separated from those in their household “bubble” that are not under quaratine, for the entire period of the quarantine, to prevent infecting them in the pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic phases of infection.

What does separation mean?  Briefly, sleeping in a room by themselves, staying in that room as much as possible throughout the day, wearing a mask when leaving the room, and avoiding shared bathrooms if possible.  For more details, see this summary from the Mendocino County Health Department.

Symptoms of COVID-19

If you develop any of these symptoms, you should stay at home for 10 days, and call your primary care provider.

CDC list of symptoms:
  1. Fever (temperature over 100 degrees F)
  2. New or different cough
  3. Shortness of breath
  4. Sore throat
  5. Loss of taste or smell
  6. Chills
  7. Muscle aches
  8. New headache that persists for more than a few hours or is different from your usual headache

Other common symptoms seen in COVID-19 infections:

  1. Fatigue
  2. New nasal congestion that persists for more than a day after treatment for allergies
  3. New rash
  4. Chest pain
  5. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  6. Stroke-like symptoms, such as confusion, slurred speech, weakness on one side of your body

Common Scenarios:

I had a stuffy nose all day and some allergy symptoms; must I isolate at home? 

Other illnesses can cause any of the symptoms listed above, but with the prevalence of COVID-19 being so high, it is best to assume that any of these symptoms could be COVID-19, even if you have other medical conditions that could explain them.  Doctors are sometimes giving inappropriate reassurances over the phone, without testing for COVID-19.

If you have one of these symptoms that persists, and you have been evaluated by your PCP and tested negative for COVID-19, and you normally would work within the office, you should reach out to your supervisor or the Human Resources Department in your organization to make sure it is OK to come into the office.

If I have one of these symptoms and it resolves, can I get a COVID test to see if I can come out of isolation?

You should stay home for at least 10 days after the symptom is resolved.  Given the shortage of tests some providers are not ordering tests on everyone with symptoms.  Given the high rate of false negative COVID test results, even a negative test should not be considered a pass to come out of isolation early if you had symptoms suspicious for COVID.  A positive test is helpful for reinforcing the importance of isolation and quarantine.

What Constitutes a Close Contact?

If you know you had recent close contact and possible exposure with someone you know has or recently tested positive for COVID-19, you could be infected.

A close contact to a confirmed or suspected case is defined as an individual who:

    1. Lives in or has stayed at the case’s residence, OR
    2. Is an intimate sexual partner of the case, OR
    3. Provides or provided care to the case without wearing a mask, gown, and gloves, OR
    4. Was within 6 feet of a case for a prolonged period of time (10 minutes or more).


    E. This contact occurred while the case was determined to be infectious. A                 case is infectious within 48 hours before that person’s symptoms began                 and until that person is no longer required to be isolated.

Close contacts should follow the same precautions as those listed for someone who had to travel or attended a social gathering and is returning to work: a 14-day quarantine at home.

If you travel out of the area or if you break from universal precautions (by attending a party or wedding, for example, or even a smaller gathering outside your usual “bubble” or “pod” without wearing a mask), you should stay out of the office (ideally at home) for 14 days of quarantine after your transgression.

Preventing COVID-19 transmission when you don’t have symptoms

Universal Precautions: Take actions that assume you may be infected with COVID-19 and don’t know it, to prevent accidental spread in your community.

The best way to prevent COVID-19 transmission is to:

  1. Stay at home, away from face-to face social gatherings with people outside your bubble/pod,
  2. Wear a mask as directed by the state order
  3. Maintain physical distancing, and
  4. Wash or sanitize your hands.

If you do this well in your everyday life, this certainly minimizes (but does not eliminate) the risk of asymptomatic transmission.

As testing becomes more available, some of these recommendations will change; stay tuned.

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