EXPLAINER: Difference between quarantine and isolation

The two words are incorrectly used interchangeably, often indicting a person is sick.

In Summary

•If you are in 14-day quarantine, the incubation period, you are not necessarily sick. Testing will tell -- two negative tests a day apart.

• Isolation is for those who have tested positive and for those with mild symptoms. Many people are in self-imposed isolation to ensure they do not become sick.

The entrance to Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi.
The entrance to Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi.
Image: FILE

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, two words have been on Kenyans’ lips: Quarantine and isolation.

Unfortunately, reporters, commentators and wananchi have used them incorrectly or interchangeably.

But what do o these words mean?


The dictionary defines quarantine is the state, period, or place of isolation where people or animals that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to infectious or contagious diseases are kept.

For example, people who bring their pets from other countries usually must place them in quarantine to ensure they are healthy.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines isolation as keeping a person or animal with a contagious disease separate from others. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says isolation separates people with a contagious disease from those who are not sick.

The difference, therefore, is that for quarantine, the person or animal need not necessarily be infected but exposed to a disease.

The purpose is to keep ill people or animals from healthy ones to avoid the spread of the disease.

In the Covid-19 case, therefore, those who are isolated have tested positive.

Those who are quarantined are persons who have either arrived from countries with coronavirus cases or have come into contact with those who have tested positive in Keny. It does not mean they are sick or have Covid-19. 


The US Department of Health and Human Services says quarantine is used to separate and restrict the movement of healthy persons who may have been exposed to a communicable disease to see if they become ill.

“These people may have been exposed to a disease and do not show symptoms. Quarantine can also help limit the spread of a communicable disease,” HHS says.

In this case, those being quarantined over the coronavirus are being held for 14 days, which is the incubation period.

So far, Health CS Mutahi Kagwe has announced that a number of those who had been quarantined have been released, having not shown any Covid-19 symptoms after 14 days. Consequently, they tested negative.

Those in quarantine who show signs or and turn positive are consequently isolated.

You can only leave isolation after two tests 24 hours apart that are both negative.

Dr Wendy Burton and Dr Kat McLean say the rules for living in isolation include having no visitors, no trips, no family gatherings. You should stay at home or in an isolation centre.

And if you are isolating at home, you should keep away from others, cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing and wash your hands frequently with soap and running water for 20 seconds.

If there's no soap and water, use hand sanitiser.

Why isolate?

This, as mentioned earlier, is to slow down the spread of the virus because hospitals will not be able to handle all the cases if everyone is infected at the same time.

One is at risk of contracting Covid-19 if they are in close contact with a sick person, even though they may be asymptomatic.

Close contact means 15 minutes of one-on-one contact with a patient, more than 24 hours in the same room and less than a metre from the patient.