CDC reverses guidance on COVID-19 testing for asymptomatic people

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday revised controversial guidance that previously stated people without COVID-19 symptoms don’t necessarily need to be tested.

In updated guidance, the agency said: “If you have been in close contact, such as within 6 feet of a person with documented SARS-CoV-2 infection for at least 15 minutes and don’t have symptoms you need a test.”

“Please consult with your healthcare provider or public health official. Testing is recommended for all close contacts of persons with SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the CDC added.

The agency faced significant backlash from public health officials, local health departments and members of Congress when it changed its guidance last month to state that people without symptoms “don’t necessarily need a test” even if they have had close contact with confirmed cases.

That language was deleted Friday and replaced with new text under a “clarifications” heading.

“Due to the significance of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, this guidance further reinforces the need to test asymptomatic persons, including close contacts of a person with documented SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the clarification reads.

Public health experts warned that the CDC’s changes last month would be a step backward in the nation’s COVID-19 response.

The Infectious Diseases Society of American, a group of physicians, scientists and public health experts, called the reversal on testing guidance “good news.”

“The return to a science-based approach to testing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is good news for public health and for our united fight against this pandemic,” the group said in a statement Friday. “We urge officials to support the work of controlling this pandemic by following medical guidance of experts in the field.”

About 40 percent of people with COVID-19 are thought to be asymptomatic, meaning they will never show symptoms of the disease but can still spread it to others, including more vulnerable people who could become seriously ill and die.

“Not testing all possible close contacts impacts the ability of local health departments to engage in effective case investigation and contact tracing, the primary tools we have right now to slow the spread of this disease,” groups representing local health departments wrote in a letter to CDC Director Robert Redfield last month after the earlier guidance was issued.

“Changing testing guidelines to suggest that close contacts to confirmed positives without symptoms do not need to be tested is inconsistent with the science and the data,” the groups added.

The New York Times reported Thursday that last month’s change in guidance was written by officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — the CDC’s parent agency — and not by scientists. The August guidance was posted despite objections from CDC scientists, according to the Times.

Public health experts and Democrats have worried about political interference at the CDC at the hands of President Trump and his allies. The CDC is typically nonpartisan and governed by science and data, but Trump has increasingly taken steps that undermine the agency’s independence.

This week, Trump contradicted Redfield’s congressional testimony on COVID-19 vaccine distribution and the efficacy of masks, saying at a White House press conference that he phoned the CDC director to tell him he was wrong on both of those issues.

Redfield had told members of Congress that a vaccine might not be widely available to the general public until the spring or summer of 2021 — about six months later than Trump’s stated timeline.

Updated at 2:54 pm.

Tags asymptomatic CDC Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Guidance Mark Meadows Pandemic testing
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