What Is Self-Isolation? Plus, How To Prepare For It

We asked two public health experts for their best advice.
What Is Self-Isolation? Plus, How To Prepare For It

(Photo: Nadia Bormotova, iStock)

The outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was first reported on New Year’s Eve 2019, and has since grown to be a global pandemic.

In Canada, there are currently 152 confirmed cases, including one fatality, according to the most recent numbers recorded by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). On March 12, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau tested positive for COVID-19; as a result, both she and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are currently self-isolating for 14 days. The Canadian government also announced that all passengers arriving to Canada from international destinations will be asked to self-isolate as a precaution.

But what exactly is self-isolation, and how should you prepare for it? We asked two public health experts for their best advice.

What is self-isolation?

Self-isolation, a.k.a. voluntary home quarantine, means staying home and minimizing contact with other people, including other members of your household. This is something that PHAC recommends for people who have demonstrated COVID-19 symptoms—fever, dry cough, general fatigue—or for those who are asymptomatic but have a high risk of exposure.

“The whole purpose of this is so that you don’t go out,” says Alison Thompson, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Pharmacy and an expert in pandemic planning. The ultimate goal is to minimize the spread of the disease.

How long should I self-isolate for?

If you’re symptomatic, you will need to consult with a medical professional about how long to self-isolate. If you’re asymptomatic, the typical self-isolation period is 14 days.

What types of food should I buy in preparation for self-isolation?

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) suggests stocking up on easy-to-prepare, non-perishable items like dry pasta, canned soup, canned vegetables and beans (for protein and fibre).


Doris Grinspun, a registered nurse and the CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, also recommends stocking up on frozen fruits and vegetables, which are just as nutritious as fresh. Batch cooking and then freezing some meals in advance is also a smart thing to do right now.

(Find some other great pantry-stocking tips from Chatelaine’s food director here.)

If you’re self-isolating, you should not be going to the store yourself, says Thompson. Instead, ask a friend or neighbour to buy groceries for you or use a grocery delivery service. In light of the outbreak, multiple food delivery services have introduced an option for non-contact drop-offs.

How much toilet paper do I need?

At max, you should ensure you have a one- to two-week supply on hand, says Thompson. This will help ensure that there’s enough TP on store shelves for everyone. “We are seeing a run on certain things that is really unnecessary,” she says.

The panic-buying that’s being documented on social media is completely unwarranted. Canada’s largest producer of TP, Mississauga-based Kruger Products LP—which manufactures both Cashmere and Purex brand toilet paper—says production is at full capacity in order to quickly recover from this week’s sales spike.


However, it is a good idea to stock up on facial tissues, as well as feminine hygiene products and diapers (depending on your family’s needs). If someone in your household becomes sick, having extra plastic garbage bags on hand is also recommended to help contain germy waste, such as used tissues.

What about hand sanitizer?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a hot commodity right now, but Thompson warns that it does not necessarily need to be used at home. “Hand sanitizer is useful for situations where we don't have soap and water available,” she says. Washing your hands with soap and water is more effective, she explains, in part because the friction generated when drying your hands kills some virus.

Sanitizer also isn't as effective if you have any dirt or oils, such as moisturizers, on your hands. The number one thing, says Thompson, is frequent hand washing for the length of two full renditions of "Happy Birthday.”

Can't find sanitizer? Grinspun recommends carrying a piece of soap in your bag, along with a small bottle of water.

What specific cleaning products should I buy?

PHAC recommends having your go-to products on hand, as well as extra dish and laundry detergents in case you have to care for someone who is ill.


Also consider buying a jug of bleach: mix one part with nine parts water to disinfect household surfaces. (This can replace your household cleaner.)

What medications do I need to have on-hand?

PHAC recommends refilling your prescriptions before self-isolating, and keeping a supply of fever-reducing medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (and the necessary children’s doses if required), in case someone in your household becomes ill.

Similar to toilet paper, Grinspun emphasizes that it's crucial to get no more than a two-week supply of medications and prescriptions to avoid depleting the supply. Thompson further cautions that it’s only necessary to renew every single prescription you may have, because that further taxes the system. “You need to get just what you think you’re going to need,” she says. “You’re not preparing for Armageddon here.”

Don’t forget your neighbours

Will all the focus on stocking your own pantry and medicine cabinet, it can be easy to overlook the needs of others. But as Thompson notes, “there’s more to preparedness than just shopping.”

Check in on your social support system, and make sure that you can call on people if you need them—and vice versa, she says.


Maintaining these social connections—and (metaphorically) leaning on others—can be particularly helpful for combating feelings of loneliness and anxiety during the coronavirus outbreak, notes Grinspun.

Within our communities, Thompson adds that it’s extra important to think of those who are more vulnerable. "Think about that elderly person down the street who you know has trouble getting out to the shops [and] pick up something extra for them,” she says. “We know that people will get through an outbreak much better if they have social connections and a sense of common purpose.” Her ultimate reminder to Canadians? It’s not every person for themselves. We are all in this together.


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