Health & Science

What To Do If Your Family Is Exposed to COVID-19

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Colleen Gavigan, an Orlando mother of three, was shocked when her husband came home and told her he’d tested positive for COVID-19. Furloughed from work and with a knee injury that kept him from leaving the house much at all, he was the family member she least expected to hear those words from. 

“I was totally shocked that he was the one to get it,” she says. “He probably left the house far less than the rest of us.”

When both of their sons started experiencing symptoms the next day, Gavigan immediately took them to get tested—and they were both positive. 

“At first I’d been foolish enough to think that if my husband just isolated himself in a separate room with its own bathroom, the rest of us would be fine, but if you live with someone, you’re exposed,” she says. 

Defining Close Contact

When you hear about coronavirus exposure, you’ve probably heard the term “close contact.” The most prominent examples of close contact are the stuff that everyday family life is made of, hence why it’s important for every family member to be tested even if just one of you tested positive:

  • Being within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more
  • Providing care at home to someone who is sick with COVID-19
  • Having direct physical contact, such as hugging, kissing, and snuggling, with a person who’s tested positive
  • Sharing eating or drinking utensils

The only exception to the close contact rule is in regard to those who’ve had COVID-19 within the past three months. In those cases, there’s no need to quarantine or get tested again as long as there are no symptoms present. Any exposure after the three-month mark would warrant another round of testing, as there have been a few cases of patients getting sick with the virus at seemingly two separate times.

What to do if you’ve been around someone who tests positive


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone who has had close contact with someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19 should be tested. As you saw above, families living in the same house automatically fit the bill.

The good news is it’s relatively easy to get a test within a day or two of determining you need one, and they’re available at no cost nationwide at health centers and select pharmacies. Some clinics provide results near instantaneously, while others require long lines and several days to a week to distribute results. Being able to know quickly if someone in your family is positive can make a huge difference, says Gavigan. “If you have to wait and wonder for days you might be more tempted to go out,” she says. “It’s much better to just know, so you can begin quarantining and focus on getting better.”

Quarantine vs. Isolation

A person who tests positive should isolate for 10 days from the onset of symptoms, or 10 days from the day a positive test sample was collected if they don’t have symptoms. This means staying in a room away from other family members, including for meals, and not preparing food for others. They should also use a bathroom no one else uses, if possible. If that’s not possible, the bathroom should be disinfected after each use. If you’re symptom-free and have no fever without medication, it’s okay to return to normal activities after 10 days.

Even if a test comes back negative, the CDC also recommends that any close contact of someone who has COVID-19 should stay home for 14 days after their last contact with that person, regardless of whether or not they develop symptoms. This 14-day period is called quarantine, and it’s different from isolation. Quarantine is the practice of keeping someone who might have been exposed to COVID-19 away from others. This is to help prevent the spread of the virtus that can occur before a person even knows they’re sick—or if they’re infected with the virus but lack symptoms. Isolation, by contrast, is when someone who’s infected with the virus keeps away from others, even within their own home. 

As the Gavigan family learned, isolating Dad wasn’t going to keep the virus at bay. Even without symptoms, every member of a family with someone who has tested positive is considered presumptive positive, or assumed to be positive, simply for being around them.

Contact tracing

It’s worth noting that at no point was Gavigan asked to do any sort of contract tracing—notifying people you were in close contact with for the two days prior to the onset of symptoms (or two days before a positive test, if there are no symptoms). “It didn’t come up at all with any of the doctors we saw,” she says. However, if you or someone in your family tests positive, it’s important to make sure those you may have been in contact with are made aware, so they can quarantine. 

Many health departments are becoming overwhelmed—with the increase in positive cases and the (unfortunately) large number of close contacts those people sometimes have, health officials are being forced to focus on cases in places like nursing homes, hospitals, and schools, leaving other individuals to retrace their own steps. If you haven’t been out too much it will be easier. But for families with parents who work outside the home or those with kids who are back in school, it can be tough. Letting the school and your place of business know someone in your family has tested positive is a great start.

Despite advances in treatments and with promising vaccines around the bend for 2021, many families still struggle with the uncertainty that still surrounds COVID-19. “My doctor said to me, ‘The one thing we know about COVID-19 is that we don’t know much about COVID-19, at least not yet,’” Gavigan says. This is why it’s so important to take charge of your family’s health the moment even just one of you feels sick, and most especially if one of you tests positive. Knowing what to do in those moments can make a world of difference.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.