Story at a glance
- CDC officials updated their guidelines on quarantining following potential COVID-19 exposure.
- The group noted there is residual risk with this new approach.
Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its quarantine guidelines as cases continue to rise.
Since the onset of the pandemic, public health officials have strengthened the recommendation that people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 isolate themselves for two weeks.
Now, CDC COVID-19 Incident Manager Henry Walke told reporters Wednesday that there are two new alternatives to quarantining. People have the option to end quarantine after 10 days without COVID-19 test without symptoms, or after seven days with a negative test result and no symptoms.
PCR or antigen tests are approved to use as a gauge of whether to continue quarantining.
Walke said that this decision stems from the review of new research and modeling data, and used partner health agencies to make the decision.
“I want to stress that we are sharing these options with public health agencies across the country so that they can determine how long quarantine periods should last in their jurisdictions based on local conditions,” Walke said.
A shorter quarantine period does not mean the risk of spreading the virus has been reduced. John Brooks, the chief medical officer for the CDC COVID-19 response unit, noted that there is an accompanying risk with reducing the recommended quarantine time frame.
“We can safely reduce the length of quarantine, but accept that there is a small residual risk that a person who is leaving quarantine early could transmit to someone else,” Brooks said.
Based on the data reviewed by health officials, the residual risk of shortening quarantine is about 1 percent, and the upper statistical limit of that risk is about 10 percent. These risks enter into play primarily when delegating symptom screening to individual people.
Because of the sporadic nature of COVID-19 symptoms, the CDC still recommends that people who think they were exposed continue to monitor themselves for COVID-19 symptoms for the full 14 days.
A major motivation for this change is to help regional health agencies manage the capacity of COVID-19 patients. A testing shortage in some locations makes it difficult to identify positive cases and isolate them.
“We recognize that testing is difficult in some locations, and that our public health partners have the option to choose something that will suit the circumstances of their community based both on those circumstances and the relative resources they have available,” Walke said.
As new cases and hospitalizations rise after the Thanksgiving holiday, adding more quarantine options, as well as stressing the usage of face masks and social distancing, are the CDC’s tactics to help prevent the anticipated winter outbreaks.
Walke stated that a reduction in quarantine time does not indicate the virus is not serious. Instead, he says this tactic is meant to support public health agencies and encourage greater public compliance.
“We are in a situation where cases are rising,” he said. “That means that the number of contacts are rising, and the number of people who require quarantine is rising. That’s a lot of burden, not just on the people who have to quarantine, but also on public health.”
He noted this method involves accepting the risk of a person continuing to be infectious even after a 10- or seven-day quarantine.
In the wake of millions of travelers moving through airports over the past holiday, Cindy Friedman, the chief of the Travelers' Health Branch, discourages any travel.
“Cases are rising and the safest thing to do is postpone holiday travel and stay home,” she said. “Travel volume was high over thanksgiving and even if only a small percentage of those travelers were asymptomatically infected, this can translate to hundreds of thousands of infections moving from one community to another.”
For people who elect to travel anyway, Friedman recommends testing one to three days before traveling and again three to five days after arriving back.
Reducing nonessential activities for a full week is also strongly encouraged.
Walke was tight-lipped on the recent approval the Pfizer vaccine scored in the U.K., noting both countries have distinct processes in place for approval and that the U.S. is continuing with the process.