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Quarantining people who've been exposed to sick patients is one of the most basic ways to end the spread of an infectious disease, like COVID-19.
But the WHO says proper quarantining is still not being done "systematically, anywhere" during this pandemic.
That's a problem, especially in Europe and the US, where cases and hospitalizations are on the rise again.
Effective quarantining "means not going to work. It means not going to the grocery store. It means not socializing with friends. It means not having people over at your home," the WHO said.
Coronavirus cases are ticking up across many parts of Europe and North America, signaling the beginning of a new wave of this pandemic.
"About half of our member states within the European region have experienced a 50% increase in cases in the last week," World Health Organization executive director of health emergencies Dr. Mike Ryan said during a virtual press briefing from Geneva on Monday. "Clearly, across the board, we're seeing a large increase in cases."
Part of the reason for the increase in cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, across so much of the Northern Hemisphere right now is because as temperatures fall, more gatherings are being held indoors, where the virus spreads best.
But there is also one neglected virus-fighting strategy that Ryan says is a major reason why the virus isn't going away in certain places. There is one more measure in addition to widespread mask wearing, handwashing, and social distancing that is essential to combatting the virus' spread, and preventing more deaths, and it is not being done enough: Get people who've been exposed to the virus away from everybody else, fast.
Ryan said this concept, called quarantining, is his single "golden wish" to improve the state of the pandemic.
"As a public health physician, if I was asked for one thing that could improve that might change the game here, that is: making sure that each and every contact of a confirmed case is in quarantine for the appropriate period of time, so as to break chains of transmission," he said.
Quarantining works. But the US and Europe aren't doing enough of it right now.
"I do not believe that has occurred systematically anywhere, and particularly in countries that are experiencing large increases now," Ryan said. "If you know yourself to be having been in contact with a case, you should be in full quarantine, at home, without contact with other people."
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a 14-day stay at home period for anyone who's been in close contact with others who have tested positive for COVID-19, unless those people have already had the virus some time in the past three months.
Quarantining prevents people who may be harboring the virus, unknowingly, from passing it to others. It works so well because if everyone who has the virus in a community stays home, no one new can get it, and the local outbreak ends.
'Not going to the grocery store' and 'not socializing with friends'
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead for COVID-19 said during the meeting Monday that she's had lots of friends and family asking her in recent days what, exactly, quarantine is. Essentially, it's complete isolation from other people, including those you'd normally live with and breathe around, to the fullest extent possible.
"That means not going to work," Van Kerkhove said. "It means not going to the grocery store. It means not socializing with friends. It means not having people over at your home."
Ideally, quarantining is a disease-fighting measure that is supported by local health programs and government support that can allow people to continue making a living and feeding their families while in quarantine, she said.
But finances and social support are not the only hurdle to overcome to enact proper quarantining in places around the globe.
Faster test results are sorely needed for quarantining to really work right
A big part of the reason that it's become so difficult to quarantine people effectively in the US is because COVID-19 test results are still too slow to put people on proper alert to stay home.
A recent nationwide survey from researchers at Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers Universities found that the average turnaround time for coronavirus lab tests in the US in September was about 2.7 days, which is an improvement from the average 4.4 days it took to get tests back in March. However, many public health experts, including Bill Gates, agree that test results must get returned reliably within around 24 hours in order to really alert everyone who might've been exposed to the virus properly, and get those people into quarantine.
Ryan noted that many Asian countries have had very low numbers of cases for quite some time, by employing tests strategically, then squashing local clusters of cases by quarantining close contacts of the sick, before those clusters expand.
He stressed that success is due, in large part, to COVID-19 case detection, case isolation, "and, especially, quarantining of contacts."
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