How to quarantine safely during the COVID pandemic

All around the world, expats are stranded–some in countries they call home and some in places they were just visiting. Now, many are forced to repatriate–because of a risk assessment, expiring visas, inhospitality, and more. Unfortunately, while you can reduce your risk of infeciton while traveling, that’s not the only risk you face: many are now forced to quarantine in a hotel for 14-35 days, depending where you go. So how can you keep yourself safe while in a hotel quarantine?

It’s a real question. My doctor friend made the disturbing observation that a quarantine in a hotel is more like being in a cruise ship or dorm room than in a medical isolation ward. And just in case you’ve not been tracking what’s happened with COVID-19 on cruise ships and dormitories, its not pretty. Yet a hotel quarantine will be nearly identical: densely packed populations, shared air circulation, communal corridors, centrally-prepared food, and more. The hotel staff is aware of these risks–here’s a few photos taken by expat friends of mine as they entered hotel quarantines:

Now, these are high-risk quarantines and yours may be lower risk–but the reality is that you don’t really know the risk level, so it’s wise to be prepared for any situation before you travel. My family and I will likely be forced to hotel quarantine in a few weeks, so here’s our plan to reduce our risk:

The information contained in this article is provided for educational purposes only and is not a replacement for professional medical advice. You assume all risks if you choose to follow or not follow any procedures contained in this article. Also, links on this page may contain affiliate links, which may provide a commission that supports this site at no additional cost to you. See full disclaimers & disclosures.

FYI, I’ve put together a convenient “shopping list” at the end containing all the items I mentioned in the article, so you don’t have to keep track of them as you read.

Travel safely

This may go without saying, but make sure to travel safely and not just focus on quarantining safely. I put together a bunch of tips of how to reduce your risk of COVID exposure while traveling. Make sure to follow them.

Disinfect your room & belongings

Hopefully you’ll be quarantined in a place that is effectively disinfecting the rooms between usage, but since you have no idea who was in the room before you or how well it was cleaned or disinfected, act as if the COVID virus could be anywhere in the room and thoroughly disinfect the room. After all, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that COVID-19 can live up to 3 days on hard surfaces and up to 3 hours in the air.

  1. Isolate your room. The goal of this isolation is so that, as you disinfect your room, it’s not being reinfected. Close the door and seal it, turn off the air conditioner, and close any air vents. See further possible isolation tips below.
  2. Clean all surfaces. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends wearing gloves and cleaning all surfaces with soap and water. Though this will not kill germs, it physically removes many germs and makes surfaces clean. Clean the floor, all surfaces, tables, chairs, remote controls, etc.
  3. Disinfect the room. The CDC recommends using a 70% isopropyl/rubbing alcohol solution; bleach is also a recommended option, but it will likely make your room smell, so alcohol is a better bet. Make sure to wash your hands afterwards. See full CDC recommendations.
  4. Assuming you traveled to this location, make sure to clean all belongings you are bringing into the room: bags, suitcases, shoes (especially shoes), and then shower thoroughly.

Tip: You’ll be more likely to do this necessary disinfecting work if you can make it relatively fast and easy. I thus recommend bringing with you a spray bottle and a large supply of isopropyl alcohol. It’s also probably a good idea to practice this in advance so you know how much alcohol you need to bring with you.

Keep the room COVID-free

After a thorough initial cleaning, hopefully your room is now COVID-free. How can you keep it COVID-free for the length of your stay?

  1. Isolate the room from its surroundings. Hotels aren’t built like medical isolation wards, but the goal is to recreate that as best as you can:
    • Seal the door. At minimum, place a towel under the door to reduce airflow, but ideally you should seal the door shut with either tape or plastic sheeting.
    • Turn off the air conditioner. If you are confident it is only a room-specific unit, you can use it; if there is any possibility of it being a central air conditioner, turn it off as there is evidence that COVID can spread through air condition. Consider bringing a portable fan if you anticipate it will be hot.
    • Seal all room air vents. This can be accomplish with layers of duct tape and/or plastic sheeting. If you need fresh air, open the window during the daytime. (There is risk of airborne transmission, but it is relatively low in daytime, sunlit conditions).
    • Cover drains. Yes, Hong Kong suspects that COVID can spread via pipes, leading them to make this recommendation. They also recommend regularly using the drains.
  2. Disinfect the room daily. You can’t assume that there is no source of contamination, nor can you assume that your family is not infected–they may have been infected during your travel–and so this procedure is specifically recommended by Hong Kong for people in quarantine.
    • If there is an area of known contamination (vomit, someone spits, sneezes, etc.), then make sure thoroughly to clean and disinfect the surface.
  3. Reduce the number of times the door opens. Every time the door opens is a possible contamination event, so the fewer times you face that risk, the better.
    • Reduce room service, sheets, & towels. You don’t vacuum or change sheets and towels daily at home; your hotel doesn’t need it either. Only use those service when you really need to.
    • Bring a water filter. Most expats know not to trust hotel water, but bringing a water filter means you can drink out of the tap and reduce water deliveries.
    • Bring food. You may not be able to pack 14 days worth of food for your entire family–but consider bringing along enough food so you only have to food brought in once a day. MREs are a great, compact, lightweight choice.
  4. Disinfect anything that enters your room–disinfectant wipes are going to be your savior here for their convenience.
  5. Hardcore measure: Disinfect the room every time the door opens. Because this is a huge hassle–and still won’t kill airborne viruses–consider building an “airlock” around the door. Use plastic sheeting and duct tape to create an air-sealed partition around the door; seal it before the door opens, disinfect everything in the partition after the door closes, and then unseal it to reenter your room.

Practice good hygiene

If you’ve followed the steps above, then you’ve hopefully ensured your room is COVID-free and you’ve reduced the risk of COVID entering your room. However, still practicing good personal hygiene will reduce your risk further so that, if the virus managed to get into your hotel room, you’ll reduce your likelihood of infection. In addition, if you have just traveled, it is possible that another party member could be infected and so consider that the source of infection could be inside your room.

  1. Wear a N95 mask. I suspect that few of you will continuously wear a mask for 14 days, though Hong Kong recommends it for people under quarantine. If you can, awesome, but at minimum wear it for 4 hours after you enter the room or the door opens, as the virus can live up to 3 hours in the air.
  2. Wash hands well, especially before eating or touching your face. You hopefully have that one down by now.
  3. Don’t touch your face. You should have that one down by now too.
  4. Avoid sharing personal items: cups, utensils, toothbrushes, towels, wash clothes, etc. In fact, try to keep these as far apart from each other as possible.
  5. If unmasked or with a valved mask, cover any coughs in your elbow to minimize possible airborne spread.
  6. Close the toilet seat before flushing, as COVID can spread via fecal matter and there’s always some fecal spray when you flush.
  7. Disinfect the toilet after every use.
  8. Don’t share food; instead, use public utensils to separate food into individual dishes to be consumed. Additionally, if you remove masks to eat, don’t face the other members of your party while eating.

Non-medical tips

If you follow the above advice–traveling safely, disinfecting your room, keeping it COVID-free, and practicing good personal hygiene–you’ll do about as much as humanly possible to reduce your risk of a COVID infection. Here’s some other, non-medical tips that expats in quarantine have shared with me:

  • Before you enter quarantine, see if you can talk with someone who has been quarantined in that city or country before you. Learn what hotel conditions were like, what isolation procedures were, what food is available, etc.–and then adjust your plan accordingly
  • Prepare for a LONG processing time. My friends shared it took 10-16 HOURS from the time they landed until when they were processed into their hotel room. Prepare accordingly.
    • Bring lots of food and water–both snacks and full-fledged meals. You may have access to a vending machine and restaurants or you may not. Plan accordingly.
    • Bring physical entertainment options. Don’t rely solely on electronic means of entertainment as you may need to preserve battery.
    • Bring a battery backup; you may need to use your phone to give information to an official and you don’t want it to die on you.
  • Make sure you have travel adapters and chargers for your electronics and other electricity needs, particularly if you’re being quarantined while in transit.
  • Prepare multiple copies of your personal information and travel history. You’ll be repeatedly asked questions about where you have traveled, so prepare this in advance with supporting documents for faster processing. If possible, list this in English and in the local language of the region where you are traveling. Here’s a suggestion info what to include based on what is required locally; your country may vary:
    • Name, gender, date of birth
    • Passport number & nationality
    • Overseas (home) address & phone number
    • In-country (foreign) address & phone number
    • Contact person in-country that’s not a member of your party
    • Occupation
    • Port of entry
    • Destination
    • Flight number & seat number
    • Last 60 dates of travel history, including date, flight/train/bus number, point of origin and destination
    • Any COVID test(s) you’ve had and their results
  • Stay healthy in quarantine. You’re at a higher infection risk, so keep your immune system healthy:
    • Eat as healthy as you can. Avoid junk food, sugars, alcohol, and smoking.
    • Bring vitamins with you to stay nutritionally balanced even if you eat poorer quality food.
    • Consider taking some immune-boosting vitamins like Emergen-C.
    • Sleep well. You’re quarantined anyway–sleep a full 8 hours.
    • Exercise as best as you can. Do pushups and situps, yoga, jog in place, jumping jacks, use resistance bands, the 7-minute high intensity workout, whatever works for you in a limited space. Definitely don’t let yourself sit and veg out for 14 days–you have to stay active. If nothing else, stand and walk around a bit every hour.
  • Come up with an anti-cabin fever plan for you and your family.
    • What activities and games will occupy you and your kids in a tiny space? Consider keeping some special sure-fire activities/games “hidden” so you can pull them out in a time of desperate need
    • What routine can you build to give your family stability and help you be healthy?
    • What special foods/treats do you want to stash away as an emotional pick-me-up when things are hard?
  • Make sure to check out the “shopping list” below for a convenient list of items I’ve mentioned or recommended here.

Been through a hotel quarantine before? Have advice to share? Add it in the comments below or contact me personally so others can benefit from it!

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Shopping list

For your convenience, I’m listing here in one place all the items I’ve mentioned throughout. If there’s a specific item I personally use or recommend, I’ve linked to it directly. If not, I link to an Amazon search of that item so you can make your own choice.

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