Countries struggling to cope with high COVID-19 case numbers may shorten the recommended quarantine period in certain situations, new interim guidance from The World Health Organization (WHO) says.
In a statement released Thursday, the organization suggested that “countries may consider shortening the quarantine period to 7 days with the addition of a [negative COVID test] administered by qualified personnel.”
Where testing isn’t available, the guidance adds, this should be increased to ten days, after which point the risk of transmission is estimated to be between one and ten percent.
For the last two years, the WHO has recommended a quarantine period of 14 days for people exposed to COVID-19 – meaning anybody who even got within one meter (39 inches) of somebody who tested positive would need to isolate for two weeks. The new guidance changes that, albeit under limited circumstances.
“When COVID-19 incidence is high, e.g. situational levels 3 and 4 [referring to a situation where healthcare services risk becoming overwhelmed], changes to the recommended duration of the quarantine period […] may be considered,” explains the statement. “Risks and benefits should be considered if any changes are being contemplated.”
Throughout the pandemic, many countries have struggled to maintain essential services and healthcare provision, with the USA being no exception.
However, with the Omicron variant’s extreme transmissibility seeing case numbers skyrocket even further, the new guidance aims to “take into account the intensity of SARS-CoV-2 spread in countries, local epidemiology and burden and capacities of their health systems and other essential services,” the organization said.
In other words: it’s not ideal, but we have to live realistically.
“With the rapid spread of Omicron cases worldwide, contact tracing capacities of many countries have been rapidly overstretched” the statement notes. “Given this situation, countries may consider a pragmatic approach, considering that contact tracing and quarantine requirements in the community may lead to significant disruptions of essential services, including health services.”
In fact, it was this logic that prompted the US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to update their own guidance back in December. Citing the impact on society from the spread of Omicron, plus the latest variant’s apparent lower severity per case, the department somewhat pre-empted this week’s move from the WHO by shortening the recommended isolation time for people with COVID to five days for those without symptoms.
At the time, this move proved controversial, with many experts advising against the condensed quarantine. The WHO has said, however, that their new recommendation is scientifically-backed, noting that “modelling and observational studies based on data for previous SARS-CoV-2 [variants] […] have shown that quarantine may be shortened” for cases where contacts are asymptomatic and have a negative PCR or antigen test at the end of the week – although they do specify that the test must be “performed in an accredited laboratory or by a qualified professional.”
"WHO does not at this time recommend self-administered tests to shorten quarantine,” the statement confirms.