My 14-day coronavirus self-isolation period is over. Now what?

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Canadians coming back to the country from travelling abroad are legally required to self-isolate for 14 days in an effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

Public health experts are also urging people to practise physical distancing — even if they haven’t recently travelled or have no symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

But what happens after the 14-day self-isolation period is over?

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Medical experts say you are able to go outside again if you are not showing any symptoms of the virus after the 14-day period is up, but you still must engage in best health practices, including physical distancing and handwashing.

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“At that point, the quarantine is up but the physical distancing is still there,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, a Mississauga, Ont.-based infectious disease and tropical medicine physician with Trillium Health Partners.

This means people can leave their home for essential reasons, such as going to the pharmacy or grocery shopping, he said.

Why does self-isolation last 14 days?

Medical experts encourage people to self-isolate for 14 days because you can be contagious for up to two weeks after being exposed to COVID-19.

The incubation period of the virus –– the time between exposure to a virus and its first symptoms appearing –– is five to 10 days on average, Chakrabarti said.

“That 14-day [period] is given as it is easy to remember, with a little bit of a buffer zone,” he said.

“So if you have been potentially exposed, and you have not shown symptoms for 14 days, you essentially do not have COVID-19.”

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The challenging part is that some people can be contagious without showing symptoms of the virus, says Houston-based internal medicine physician Dr. Lukasz Kwapisz.

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That’s why it is important to take public health recommendations seriously by practicing physical distancing and self-isolation as soon as you arrive home from travelling — even if you are asymptomatic.

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“At the end of those two weeks, if you haven’t shown symptoms, you’re less likely to be able to pass it on to someone,” said Kwapisz, who is also an assistant professor at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

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“You really want to reduce the reservoir of the virus. Meaning, for the virus to survive, it needs to continue to be spread. It needs to pass along to more people.”

If you don’t physically distance for 14 days, the virus is more likely to spread and overwhelm hospitals, he said.

Feeling unwell during quarantine

Those who are in quarantine for 14 days may not show symptoms of COVID-19 until the latter part of the two weeks.

If that is the case, Chakrabarti said, you need to self-isolate for another 14 days from the moment you become symptomatic.

“If you’re in quarantine for 14 days and on the 10th day, you get symptomatic and you are sick enough to have to go to the hospital, then you go to the hospital and they’ll swab you,” he said.

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“But if you’re otherwise healthy and it’s a relatively mild illness, then you go back into quarantine for 14 days at home.

Once you are feeling better and have no more symptoms, Chakrabarti said you can leave your home for the essentials.

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How long will this go on for?

Physical distancing is difficult for most people because humans crave social interactions.

So it’s no wonder the question on everyone’s mind is: how long are we going to have to live like this?

Although it’s too soon to tell and information about the spread of COVID-19 is evolving, Chakrabarti said medical experts estimate it will be another six to eight weeks, while others think it will take approximately five to six months.

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“We don’t actually know the answer right now; it all depends on how well this physical distancing works,” he said.

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Public health organizations can predict those timelines based on what they call “disease epidemiology,” he explained.

This is based on the characteristics of the virus, and what interventions flatten the curve. This means a new intervention, like physical distancing, can slow the outbreak.

Has social distancing worked elsewhere?

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital, previously told Global News that both China and South Korea have experienced “tremendous benefits” from their physical distancing policies.

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Over 50 million people in China were placed under strict quarantine as the virus spread. Travel in and out of cities stopped, and schools and businesses were temporarily shut down in an effort to contain the disease.

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South Korea implemented similar measures to limit the virus’s spread.

“They’re starting to relax some of their social distancing policies now,” Bogoch said. “Life is slowly returning back to normal.”

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He said in both cases, the countries’ policies were in place for about two and a half months.

“So if we do well, we could be in the same boat,” he said.

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Ultimately, medical experts are begging people to take physical distancing seriously in order to help combat the spread of COVID-19.

“I want everyone to take it seriously –– the physical distancing, the social distancing –– take it to heart,” Kwapisz said.

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“Don’t laugh it off. This is serious and many people’s lives are at risk.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

–– With files from Global News’ Hannah Jackson

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