Walensky: New CDC guidance is ‘what we thought people would be able to tolerate’

Federal health officials said the recommendation to shorten the isolation period for people with asymptomatic COVID-19 was aimed at striking a balance between making sure essential services can continue to function and how long people can reasonably be expected to stay isolated.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday the agency was concerned that people are not isolating at all. As infections due to the omicron variant surge, she said the goal was to have a policy that people would follow.

The new guidelines, which cut the 10-day period to five days for people who are asymptomatic, “really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate,” Walensky said during an interview on CNN’s “New Day.”

“We have seen relatively low rates of isolation for all of this pandemic. Some science has demonstrated less than a third of people are isolating when they need to. And so we really want to make sure that we had guidance in this moment where we were going to have a lot of disease that could be adhered to, that people were willing to adhere to,” Walensky added.

The omicron variant has been shown to be the most transmissible strain of the virus yet, but people who are vaccinated, and especially those who have received their booster shot, seem to only have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic. 

The sheer number of expected infections could hobble businesses if large swaths of employees miss work, and Walensky said many people would not even want to isolate if they tested positive but experienced mild symptoms.

Given what is known about omicron, she said the agency felt a change was needed.

“Our guidance was conservative before. It had said 10 days of isolation. But in the context of the fact that we were going to have so many more cases, many of those would be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, people would feel well enough to be at work. They would not necessarily tolerate being home and they may not comply with being home,” Walensky said. 

“This was the moment that we needed to make that decision and those changes.”

Walensky’s comments about tradeoffs echoed a similar answer from Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s top infectious diseases doctor and White House’s chief medical adviser. 

“We’re trying to have a good balance of preserving and protecting the public health, at the same time that we don’t have to have the draconian decision of shutting down the country,” Fauci said during an interview Tuesday evening with Chris Hayes on MSNBC

“There are so many people — now and likely in the next few weeks — who would be infected by this wave of infections we’re getting with omicron … that might have a negative impact on our ability to maintain the structure of society,” Fauci said.

When asked if there was science showing that an asymptomatic person who isolates for five days is no longer spreading the virus, Fauci indicated that it was a policy decision about tradeoffs. 

“Nothing is going to be 100 percent, and this is one of those situations when you’re dealing with a very difficult situation. We often say, you don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” Fauci said. 

“The CDC feels, and I don’t disagree with them at all, that wearing a mask is ample protection during that second half of a 10-day period, when you balance that against the importance of trying to get people back functioning in society,” he added. 

Tags Anthony Fauci CDC Coronavirus COVID-19 Omicron variant Rochelle Walensky
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