What Happens When You’re a Coronavirus Close Contact?

Disclaimer: This post is not medical advice.  If you have medical questions regarding COVID-19, coronavirus, or anything else please contact your primary care physician.

When we first started hearing things about a new and novel virus popping up on the other side of the world, I don’t think many of us had a real understanding of just how substantially this pandemic would change our lives.  It’s November now, and while schools are back open in many places and toilet paper isn’t in such short supply, we are still grappling with new infections, exposures, quarantines, isolation periods, and other new words that COVID-19 has pressed into our vocabularies.

I had really hoped that we in Iowa would be in a better place at this point, but currently infection rates are rising and community spread is a very real threat.  If you are going out into the world at all, even with careful infection control protocols, sooner or later (if it hasn’t happened already) you’re probably going to get a call or an email like the one we got a few weeks ago.

“This notice is to inform you that you have been identified as a close contact of someone who recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus during the time that they were infectious.”

What does it mean when you’ve been identified as a “close contact” of someone who tested positive for coronavirus?  As a family, we found this out last month when my oldest son received notice that he had been exposed to the novel coronavirus at his child care program.  While different healthcare providers may give differing recommendations, here’s what it meant for us:

Medical Advice

If you or your child have been exposed to COVID-19, it’s important to seek medical advice for your specific situation. Don’t just show up at a doctor’s office or urgent care, however. It is better to call your healthcare provider and ask what to do.  Many providers (including the University of Iowa) are offering video visits for those with symptoms, potential exposure, or even just questions about COVID-19.  You will likely talk with a triage nurse or other healthcare professional first.  Then, if needed, you will be scheduled a time to meet virtually with a physician, nurse practitioner, or physician’s assistant.  We spoke first with a nurse and then with a physician, who recommended testing through their clinic based on our situation.


We were advised that my son needed to quarantine for 14 days from the last date of his exposure.  He was not allowed to go out into public except to receive medical care.  He could not go to school, gymnastics, child care programs, visit relatives, or play with other kids in the neighborhood, even with a mask or outside. Since my husband worked from home, he was able to care for our son during the day while I continued to go to work as a healthcare worker.  Our other son was allowed to continue going to his child care program as he had not been directly exposed.  We kept them apart as much as possible, although this was difficult.


Recommendations may differ based on each person’s individual situation, but the healthcare provider we spoke to recommended testing at day 5 and day 12 after exposure, or sooner if symptoms developed.  The reasoning behind waiting a little while is that it can take several days for a viral load to increase to the point that it becomes detectable with a nasal swab.  It’s important to remember, however, that even with a negative test we were told he still had to complete the 14 day quarantine, as symptoms can develop at any time during that period.  A negative test is not a pass to get out of quarantine early.


We closely monitored my son for symptoms.  We took his temperature several times a day, and watched for any signs of cough, sore throat, fatigue, loss of taste or smell, diarrhea, or muscle aches.  Had he developed any symptoms, we would have immediately isolated him and called for medical advice.


Isolation is different from quarantine.  Quarantine just means you need to stay out of public in case you MIGHT be infected.  Isolation means attempting to contain the virus once you KNOW you or someone in your household is infected.  Luckily, we didn’t have to move to this step, but we did consider how we could best isolate a family member in one part of the house, using a different bathroom and using masks when in common areas should that become necessary.  At this time, the CDC recommends that a person with lab confirmed COVID-19 (meaning a positive test) should isolate from other people for a minimum of 10 days from when symptoms began OR 10 days from a positive test if there are no symptoms.

Happily for us, our 14 days passed and my son had two negative COVID-19 tests and no symptoms.  He’ll be heading back to school tomorrow, happy to be able to play with friends and get back to life as normal as it can be in these times.  And we will keep wearing our masks, maintaining physical distance, avoiding crowds, and doing everything we can to help limit the spread of COVID-19 in our community.  We can’t do everything, but we can do some things.

If you need information or have questions about COVID-19, potential exposures, or individual risk situations, call your healthcare provider right away.  You can also call the Influenza Like Illness Clinic phone number at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics at 1-319-384-9010.  If you have any life threatening symptoms such as difficulty breathing or other emergency symptoms, please don’t wait.  Call 911 and follow their instructions.

Sarah Bengtson
Sarah is a proud Iowa native who currently lives in North Liberty with her husband and 2 sons. She grew up in rural Benton county and moved to the Iowa City area in 2005 to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa in Physical Therapy. Now she balances raising two growing boys with a work as a pediatric physical therapist. Outside of work and family, Sarah loves music, playing her cello, running, baking, crochet, church activities, and cheering for the Hawkeyes and the Minnesota Vikings.


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