The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shortened the recommended isolation period for people testing positive for COVID-19 in the US. While CDC officials claim it’s a science-backed way to keep society afloat during the influx of post-Christmas Omicron cases, many public health experts have thrown criticism at the move.
On December 27, the CDC shortened the recommended time for isolation for people with COVID-19 from 10 days to five days, if they don't have symptoms or their symptoms have cleared up, followed by five days of wearing a mask when around others — even at home.
The officials argue that this makes sense because many Omicron cases are anticipated to be mild compared to other strains. Paired with this, people with COVID-19 are thought to be most contagious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop. As per the CDC's thinking, the risk is low enough for asymptomatic people to go back to work just five days after getting a positive test result.
“The Omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society. CDC’s updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine balance what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses,” CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
“These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives."
The CDC also changed the quarantine guidelines for people who have come into close contact with others with COVID-19. Only people who have received a booster dose can skip quarantine if they wear a mask around others for the 10 days after exposure. If you have received two doses or are unvaccinated, the CDC recommends quarantine for five days followed by strict mask use for the following five days. If that’s not "feasible", then simply wear a mask for 10 days around others.
However, a number of notable public health experts aren’t happy with the shift in recommendations, arguing it will result in people leaving isolation while still contagious. They also point out that this is not a mandate nor a firm set of rules, but simply a loose recommendation to employers and state officials that's largely up to an individual's interpretation of their own symptoms.
Most controversially, the recommendation suggests people who have tested positive can leave the house if they don’t have symptoms after five days or their symptoms have disappeared five days after receiving their positive test result. There is huge variability in how long people remain contagious, but the new guidance doesn’t require people to test and it’s possible people will still be positive – and potentially contagious – even if they feel better. This stands as the advice regardless of whether or not they have been fully vaccinated.
It’s also worth highlighting that while Omicron cases are less likely to lead to hospitalization and serious illness, this is an extremely infectious variant that spreads rapidly.
Given this risk, some experts are advising people to test themselves for COVID-19 and keep isolating if they’re positive, even if they have no symptoms by day five. That said, recent weeks have also seen shortages of COVID tests in the US.
"Regardless of what CDC says, you really should try to obtain an antigen test (I know- easier said than done) and confirm it’s negative prior to leaving isolation and quarantine," tweeted Jerome Adams, former Surgeon General of the US.
"There’s not a scientist or doctor I’ve met yet who wouldn’t do this for themselves/ their family," Adams wrote.
Others have been blunter with their criticism of the change in recommendations. Many social media users have taken the view that this is a rash move by the CDC, driven more by economic worries than public health concerns.