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Here's how long to isolate after testing positive for COVID

Staying home while infected will help stop the spread of the virus. But with shifting guidance, figuring out what to do after testing positive can be confusing.

COLORADO, USA — The number of people testing positive for COVID in Colorado has never been higher. The positivity rate in the state is at nearly 30%. 

While the vast majority will recover just fine, staying home while infected will help stop the spread of the virus. But with changing quarantine and isolation rules and shifting guidance, figuring out what to do after testing positive can be confusing.

An average of more than 11,000 people a day have taken a test that came back positive this week in Colorado. That means there are a lot of people who are stuck at home with COVID. That also means you’re not alone if you have questions about what to do next after you test positive.  

Dr. Comilla Sasson treats COVID patients every day as an emergency physician. She’ll help walk us through how long people have to isolate after testing positive. The CDC says five days, with some caveats.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for context and clarity.) 

9NEWS: How do you know when your isolation period begins?

Sasson: If you have symptoms, your day zero starts from the day that you have symptoms. Let’s say you have symptoms on Monday and you tested positive on Tuesday. Your day zero is Monday, when your symptoms started.

What if you’re asymptomatic? How do you know when you got infected?

Sasson: If you are asymptomatic, didn’t even have any symptoms at all, and you tested positive, then your day zero is the day you took your test.

The CDC says you can test after five days of isolation. What happens next?

Sasson: If you test positive on day six, let’s say with that rapid test, that means that viral load is high enough that you probably still need to be in isolation and you should probably continue to finish those 10 days of isolation. The bottom line is everybody does five days, and the next five days are really dependent on whether or not you’re having symptoms. If you are, then continue isolation. If you’re not, then you can test and see if you’re still shedding virus.

What should you do if you're feeling fine and test negative after day five?

Sasson: Let’s say you’re asymptomatic. Day six, you go back into the world wearing a mask, but you try to avoid big gatherings, bars, restaurants, gyms, clubs.

What do you do if a family member or friend with whom you've had close contact tests positive?

Sasson: You should go into modified quarantine, is what I call it. You have to be careful and wear a mask, look for symptoms, test at day five if you want to. Basically you have to spend 10 days being extra careful. If you are not fully vaccinated, you should quarantine in your home for five days and then test to see whether or not you can get out. 

Other than wearing a mask and staying apart, is it safe to be in the same house as someone who has tested positive and is in isolation?

Sasson: Ventilation is really important. I think of COVID as being kind of like smoke. It lives in the air, both in droplets and aerosols. You can open the windows for the person who is isolating. For the rest of the house, you can open the windows to make sure the ventilation is also really good. 

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