How people can be exposed to COVID-19
COVID-19 is spread in three main ways.
Breathing in air that has small droplets and particles containing the virus. This is more likely to happen if you have close contact with an infected person. It can also happen when you are not in close contact with someone, for example if you are in enclosed indoor spaces with poor airflow and when you are exposed for a longer period.
Having small droplets and particles containing the virus land in the eyes, nose, or mouth, through splashes and sprays like a cough or sneeze.
Touching the eyes, nose, or mouth with hands that have the virus on them. It is uncommon for COVID-19 to spread through contact with contaminated surfaces. This means that you are unlikely to get COVID-19 by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth after touching a contaminated item.
COVID-19 is spread mainly from person to person who are in close contact.
COVID-19 is spread mainly from person to person. Spread occurs more commonly between people who are in close contact.
COVID-19 can be spread by people who are not showing symptoms or before their symptoms begin.
Stay safe when you go out by following these prevention tips and knowing the COVID-19 Community Level in your area. This is especially important if you are not yet up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines [Español ] or if you have a weakened immune system.
COVID-19 Community Levels are a tool to help you decide what prevention steps to take.
In areas where the COVID-19 Community Level is
- Low: Wear a mask based on your personal preference and your level of risk of developing severe illness .
- Medium: Wear a mask based on your personal preference, your level of risk, and the risk of the people you live or spend time with .
- High: CDC recommends everyone, regardless of vaccination status, should wear a mask indoors in public in areas where the COVID-19 Community Level is high.
People at increased risk who choose to wear a mask, should wear a mask or respirator that provides them with greater protection, like an N95 or KN95.
People with weakened immune systems or who are at increased risk for severe illness should talk to their healthcare provider about what extra precautions, like masks, they may need.
VDH encourages everyone to stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, and increase ventilation in indoor spaces, regardless of community level. People may choose to mask at any time.
You can get COVID-19 more than once.
Exposure to new variants can increase the risk of reinfection. A high number of reinfection cases have been observed with the Omicron variant.
COVID-19 can spread from people to animals in some situations, but this is uncommon.
Pet cats and dogs can also sometimes become infected after close contact with people with COVID-19.
Close contact with someone with COVID-19
You are more likely to get COVID-19 if you are in close contact with a person who has COVID-19 while they are contagious or still able to spread illness to others.
People with COVID-19 can pass the COVID-19 virus to their close contacts starting from 2 days before they become sick (or 2 days before they test positive if they never had symptoms).
Evidence shows that most COVID-19 transmission occurs closer to when symptoms start, generally in the 1–2 days before and the 2–3 days after symptoms begin. However, spread is still possible for up to 10 days after infection.
Close contact means:
- Being within 6 feet of a person who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, or
- Having direct exposure to respiratory secretions (e.g., being coughed or sneezed on, sharing a drinking glass or utensils, kissing)
People who are exposed to someone with COVID-19 after they completed at least 5 days of isolation are not considered close contacts.
K-12 exception for close contact
Exception: In indoor and outdoor K-12 settings, a student who was within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student is not considered a close contact, as long as both students wore well-fitting masks [Español ]the entire time. This exception may also be applied to school buses when the following criteria are met:
- Documented seating charts and
- Assurance that masks are worn and students remain in assigned seats, either via video monitoring if available, or attestation from the bus driver or monitor.
The K-12 exception does not apply to teachers, staff, or other adults. This means that the standard close contact definition is applied when assessing exposure in a K-12 setting that involves a student with an infected adult or an exposed adult. VDH will continue to monitor the science regarding the effectiveness of this close contact definition and the associated K-12 exception, and will update guidance as necessary.
Steps to take if you had close contact with someone with COVID-19
Follow the table to see the steps on how to stay home (“quarantine”) if you are exposed to someone with COVID-19. Count the day of your last exposure as Day 0. This guidance is for members of the general public and may be applied to K-12 schools, child care settings, colleges and universities, and workplaces. It does not apply to healthcare facilities or high-risk congregate settings. This information is also available in VDH’s When to End Isolation or Quarantine infographic (PDF) (3 pp, 572 KB).
Use VDH’s Quarantine Calculator below to determine how long you should stay home (quarantine) if recommended and take other precautions.
If a person who should quarantine, cannot feasibly quarantine, VDH will not enforce the quarantine recommendation. VDH recommends quarantine because it is the safest option. If a school chooses to make the recommendation that quarantine is not feasible, VDH would not take action. Mask use for certain exposed individuals is recommended.
*Get tested on Day 5 or soon after, if possible. Those who are recommended to quarantine and cannot get tested 5 days after their last exposure may leave quarantine on Day 5, as long as they have had no symptoms. They should continue to wear a well-fitting mask when around others for 10 days after their last exposure.
Guidance for people with ongoing exposure (e.g., household close contact)
During isolation, the person with COVID-19 should separate from all household members as much as possible and follow other recommendations for those who are sick. This can potentially help limit the number of household contacts in the home.
Recommendations for ongoing exposure depend on your vaccination status:
- If you are not up to date on COVID-19 vaccines and have ongoing exposure to COVID-19, you should:
- Begin quarantine immediately and continue to quarantine throughout the isolation period of the person with COVID-19.
- Continue to quarantine for an additional 5 days starting the day after the end of isolation for the person with COVID-19.
- Get tested at least 5 days after the end of isolation of the infected person that lives with them.
- If you test negative, you can leave the home but should continue to wear a well-fitting mask when around others at home and in public until 10 days after the end of isolation for the person with COVID-19.
- If you are up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and have ongoing exposure to COVID-19, you should:
- Isolate immediately if you develop symptoms of COVID-19 or test positive.
- Consider getting tested at least 5 days after your first exposure. A person with COVID-19 is considered infectious starting 2 days before they develop symptoms, or 2 days before the date of their positive test if they do not have symptoms. You can get tested again at least 5 days after the end of isolation for the person with COVID-19.
- Consider wearing a well-fitting mask when you are around the person with COVID-19, and do this throughout their isolation period.
- Consider wearing a well-fitting mask around others for 10 days after the infected person’s isolation period ends.
- If you’ve had a positive viral test for COVID-19 within the last 6 months, you should:
- Monitor for COVID-19 symptoms for 10 days from the date of your last close contact.
- Isolate immediately and get tested if symptoms develop.
- If more than 6 months have passed since your recovery from infection, follow CDC’s recommendations for close contacts. These recommendations will differ depending on your vaccination status.
This information is available on the CDC Quarantine and Isolation webpage in the FAQ section .
Guidance for high-risk congregate settings
In certain congregate settings that have an increased risk of transmission of COVID-19 (e.g., correctional and detention facilities and homeless shelters) residents who are close contacts to a person with COVID-19 should quarantine for a full 10 days after exposure, regardless of vaccination or booster status. Refer to setting-specific guidance [Español] for more information. Quarantine guidance for the general public does not apply.
Following travel on cruise ships, self-monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms for 10 days is recommended for all travelers regardless of vaccination status. Those who are not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines should stay home and self-quarantine for 5 days after cruise travel, even if they do not have symptoms
Stay home and away from others (“quarantine”) unless you are not required to.
Avoid contact with others to avoid spreading COVID-19.
- Do not go to work, school, or public areas. Do not take public transportation, taxis, or ride-shares.
- If you live with someone with COVID-19, stay separated from sick members in the household as much as possible. Avoid sharing the same space within the home, including being in the same room. Use a different bedroom or bathroom if that is possible.
- If possible, stay away from people with weakened immune systems and people at higher risk for severe COVID-19 for 10 days after exposure.
- Do not travel during your 5-day quarantine. Avoid travel until 10 days after exposure.
- Do not go to places where you are unable to wear a mask, such as restaurants and gyms, and avoid eating around others at home and at work until 10 days after your last close contact with someone with COVID-19.
- Your local health department can help you make sure that your basic needs (for example, food and medication) are being met.
Monitor your health for 10 days after your last contact.
If you start to feel sick:
If you start to feel sick or test positive for COVID-19, visit VDH’s If you are sick or infected page to learn what steps to take.
Talk to your healthcare provider right away to see if COVID-19 treatment options are appropriate for you
FDA has authorized certain treatments for people who were exposed to someone with COVID-19 and meet additional criteria. Your healthcare provider can help determine if one of these medications is appropriate for you.
Do I need to quarantine if I’m a contact of a contact?
No. People who have had close contact with a person who was a close contact to someone with COVID-19 (“contact of a contact”) do not need to quarantine. If your contact tests positive for COVID-19, then you may need to stay home (quarantine) based on vaccination status.
Guidance for healthcare settings
Patients, residents, and visitors to healthcare settings
Patients, residents, and visitors to healthcare settings should continue to follow guidance from Interim Infection Prevention and Control Recommendations for Healthcare Personnel During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic . Quarantine guidance for the general public does not apply.
Work Restrictions for asymptomatic HCP with higher-risk exposures
In general healthcare personnel (HCP) do not require work restrictions following a higher-risk exposure if they are up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and do not develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19. Day 0 is the date of last higher-risk exposure.
* Higher-Risk Exposures generally involve exposure of HCP’s eyes, nose, or mouth to material potentially containing SARS-CoV-2, particularly if these HCP were present in the room for an aerosol-generating procedure.
† Negative test within 48 hours before returning to work.
Asymptomatic HCP with lower-risk exposures , regardless of whether they are up to date with vaccines, do not have work restrictions or testing recommendations.
More information for HCP
For more details, including recommendations for healthcare personnel who are immunocompromised, refer to Interim Guidance for Managing Healthcare Personnel with SARS-CoV-2 (conventional standards) and Strategies to Mitigate Healthcare Personnel Staffing Shortages (contingency and crisis standards).
For more information:
- Visit VDH’s COVID-19 website
- Visit VDH’s COVID-19 Vaccine website
- Find a free COVID-19 vaccine at vaccinate.virginia.gov [Español] or call 877-VAX-IN-VA (877-829-4682)
- VDH’s When to End Isolation or Quarantine infographic (PDF updated 6/15/22) (Updated) Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog Translations posted 6/30/22
- Read VDH’s general FAQs on Exposure to COVID-19
- Check out COVIDWISE [Español], VDH’s exposure notification app
- Learn tips for Taking Care of Sick People with COVID-19 Illness at Home (PDF) (1 pp, 798KB)
- Read VDH Notify Your Contacts (PDF) (2 pp, 2MB) resource
- Call VDH’s COVID-19 hotline at 877-ASK-VDH3 (877-275-8343)
Page Last Reviewed: June 29, 2022
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