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Back to school COVID questions: Explaining testing, quarantine and close contact
September 07, 2021
Explaining COVID testing, quarantine and close contact

COVID questions: Explaining testing, quarantine and close contact

The school called to let you know your child was in close contact with a student who has tested positive for COVID. Now what?

With kids back in classrooms and delta still spreading, some common questions are likely to pop up. Dr. Jeff Donowitz, infectious diseases specialist, breaks down the basics of when to test, when to quarantine and what close contact means.

What does “close contact” mean in terms of COVID exposure?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines close contact as “within six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, unless you have been fully vaccinated.” The fully vaccinated piece is still in effect, although we know vaccinated people can still be infected and even more so with the delta variant that is now the predominating virus in Virginia and across the U.S.

Exception: In K-12 settings, a student who is within three to six feet of an infected student is not considered a close contact as long as both students wore well-fitting masks the entire time. This exception may also be applied to school buses if seating charts are documented and adherence to seating assignments and mask use is verified.

When should my child get tested for COVID-19?

This is a broad question, but the Virginia Department of Health strongly recommends testing for:

  • People with symptoms or signs of COVID-19 regardless of vaccination status
  • Most people who have had close contact with someone known or suspected to have COVID-19
    • Fully vaccinated people should be tested 3-5 days following a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, even if you don’t have symptoms
    • People who are not fully vaccinated should be tested immediately after an exposure and again at 5-7 days following exposure if the first test is negative
    • People who tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 3 months and recovered do not need to get tested after exposure as long as they do not have symptoms
  • People who participate in activities that are higher risk for COVID-19 exposure (e.g. travel, attending large events where social distancing is not possible, being in crowded indoor settings)
  • People who have been referred for COVID-19 testing by their health care provider or the state/local health department
  • People who plan to travel or who have recently returned from travel with some exceptions for fully vaccinated people
  • People who are not fully vaccinated and who plan to visit people at high risk of developing severe COVID-19

When should my child isolate or quarantine, and for how long?

The specifics here depend on the exact situation and this should be discussed with your pediatrician or VDH. Symptomatic untested, confirmed positive and exposed persons all have different quarantine requirements. 

This tool from VDH provides further details about when it’s safe to end quarantine. School districts and childcare centers may have additional guidelines, so be sure to check with them about when your child is approved to return.

My child’s classmate tested positive, but they’ve been wearing masks. Should my child get tested or quarantine?

Although wearing a mask has been proven to decrease transmission of the virus, guidance on testing and quarantine does not take masking into account. It’s best to follow the testing and quarantine guidance above.

Should my child go to the emergency room to get tested if they don’t have symptoms?

No – this can cause ERs to get overwhelmed, not to mention result in a potentially expensive and unnecessary copay! The best thing to do is contact your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider for guidance and testing.

Note: You should contact the pediatrician or seek emergency care if your child has trouble breathing, is lethargic or has trouble staying awake, develops a high fever or has a worsening cough.

Print or bookmark this downloadable tool about what to do after a positive test or close contact.

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