May 21, 2020 - Health

Isolating coronavirus patients isn’t as easy as it sounds

Illustration of a family isolated under glass.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

States and cities are trying to fill in the gaps that could prevent many vulnerable people from successfully isolating themselves — an important part of tracing coronavirus infections and reducing the virus' spread.

Between the lines: People who don’t have a home, who live in communal settings, or who don’t have a way to meet their basic needs without leaving the home pose complicated challenges to the U.S.’ containment effort.

The big picture: Testing and contact tracing is the only way to contain the virus until there's a treatment, and isolating infected or potentially infected people is part of making that process work.

  • For people who can work from home, order groceries online and avoid interacting with vulnerable family members, self-isolation is very doable.

Yes, but: People experiencing homelessness, by definition, do not have a place to quarantine.

  • Those living in communal settings, like nursing homes and prisons, will also struggle to isolate — part of the reason these facilities have been so prone to outbreaks.
  • Millions of Americans live with someone who's vulnerable to the virus, whether because of their age or pre-existing health conditions, or are caregivers for elderly relatives.
  • Congress has mandated paid sick leave for certain workers, but the benefit is limited.

What they're saying: "We always pay lip service to if you’re sick, stay home. It can’t be lip service anymore. It has to be the norm," said Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of County & City Health Officials.

What they’re doing: Some communities are trying to remove these barriers.

  • Colorado is requiring long-term care facilities to create isolation plans.
  • Massachusetts created five state-operated isolation and recovery sites for homeless residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Communities within the state also set up quarantine sites for homeless people who have been exposed to the virus but are asymptomatic.
  • Nebraska is partnering with the University of Nebraska to provide quarantine housing.
  • New York City is offering hotel rooms to mildly symptomatic patients who need to isolate away from family, WaPo reports. While isolating, these patients will be provided food, pharmacy access and laundry service.

The bottom line: Successfully containing the coronavirus relies on sick or potentially sick people opting to isolate themselves. That isn’t going to happen all on its own.

Go deeper