COVID-19 Information on Social Distancing, Isolation and Quarantine Practices

An update on the public health measures that inform our campus policies, including social distancing, self-isolation, isolation, and quarantine.

Columbia Health
March 11, 2020

Dear Students,

We have received many questions from undergraduates about social distancing, self-isolation, isolation, and quarantine. We have prepared the information below to respond to your questions and concerns. You can also find more information on the University’s COVID-19 website


The University continues to actively monitor the outbreak of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus), and support the health and well-being of our community as we prepare for potentially protracted disruptions related to the outbreak. At this time, we do not have a confirmed case in the Columbia community.

I write to share further information and respond to questions from undergraduates about the policies and procedures Columbia University has in place to manage the COVID-19 risk on campus. Specifically, I will outline a series of public health measures that inform our campus policies, including social distancing, self-isolation, isolation, and quarantine.

To start, let us define what these terms mean:

Social distancing: As we have shifted to online instruction, by practicing social distancing we can continue to reduce the likelihood of spread of the virus. Social distancing means remaining out of congregate settings (gathering in a large group for a prolonged period of time), avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.

Self-isolation: This is when a person decides to separate from normal day-to-day activities based on having been in an area with others who have been diagnosed with a communicable disease. Self-isolation is designed to help protect their health and that of their community. 

  • This technique was used for returning travelers from countries with high rates of COVID-19.
  • Generally, when self-isolation is recommended, people willingly comply to support their personal health and to protect others around them.

Quarantine: In general, quarantine means separating from others an individual or group believed to have been exposed to a communicable disease. People in quarantine are typically not symptomatic, but removing them from daily activities helps to prevent the possible spread of the communicable disease.

  • A mandatory quarantine is a formal, binding requirement for someone to be separated from the broader community in the interest of public health, and it may be legally enforced.
    • Decisions to implement a mandatory quarantine are made by public health officials.
    • Columbia University is closely monitoring guidelines from the relevant authorities and will follow all mandatory quarantine protocols if and when they are required.

Isolation: A person or group of people are placed in isolation because they are known or believed to be infected with a communicable disease and are potentially infectious to others.

  • Isolation is the most extreme measure we take to prevent the spread of a communicable disease.
  • Isolation for public health purposes may be voluntary or compelled by federal, state, or local public health order.

Since January, a number of University affiliates have followed self-isolation guidelines in our on- and off-campus housing locations after returning from travel in and through high-risk areas. As the virus clusters expand, we expect additional members of our community may be subject to quarantine recommendations based on guidance from the Department of Health.

Columbia has in place policies and procedures to safely and appropriately quarantine individuals while simultaneously safeguarding the health and well-being of the broader University community. As such, we follow the New York State Department of Health, requirements for quarantine:

  • Separate quarters with separate bathroom facilities.
  • Food delivered to the person’s quarters.
  • Garbage bagged and left outside by the door of each of the quarters for routine pick up. Special handling is not required.

We are meeting all of these requirements with our quarantine protocol. As we are following the requirements, it’s important to stress that residents living on the same floor or in proximity to a person in quarantine are not at increased risk.

  • Individuals in quarantine are not confirmed cases;
  • Therefore, people in contact with them prior to the quarantine are not considered at immediate risk and are not recommended to quarantine.

Should a member of our community receive laboratory confirmation for COVID-19, we will follow the recommendation of the Department of Health to move the individual to isolation while they recover. In many cases this will mean returning the individual to their permanent home address. If that option is not possible, the University has plans, in conjunction with the Department of Health, to provide appropriate isolation accommodations. 

On a parallel track, anyone who experiences prolonged face-to-face contact with someone who has a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis will be contacted by the Department of Health with recommendations, and the University will support any recommended actions.

Regarding cleaning, the University is taking timely action to ensure spaces used by someone prior to quarantine or isolation are properly sanitized. 

  • Out of an abundance of caution, our custodial team is engaged in additional levels of cleaning of common spaces and high-touch areas to support the well-being of the University community.
  • Persons who might have been in the same building or around common touchpoints are not at immediate risk, as COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through prolonged face-to-face contact and does not survive for extended periods on surfaces.

We understand that this is a challenging period, and many of you have questions about your risk for contracting COVID-19. Please know that, over the past two months, we have successfully steered dozens of individuals through periods of self-isolation and quarantine, and we are confident that we are equipped to manage many additional cases, should they arise.

Although no member of the Columbia community has yet tested positive for COVID-19, we are prepared if and when that happens, and pledge that we will disclose the positive test result to the community while respecting the confidentiality of the individual. Be assured that if we start to see multiple cases, those in direct contact will be notified to follow the appropriate quarantine and precautions. Please call our hotline at 212-854-9355 or email your residential adviser if you have any concerns about your personal safety.

Thank you for your continued attention and support as we move through this evolving situation. Please stay up to date by visiting the University COVID-19 website

With care for our community,

Melanie Bernitz, MD, MPH
Associate Vice President and Medical Director, Columbia Health       
Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine (in the Center for Family and Community Medicine)