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CDC director clarifies change in coronavirus testing guidelines after backlash

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday issued a clarification of earlier guidance on coronavirus testing, days after a quiet change sparked protests from the scientific and medical communities.

In a statement, Director Robert Redfield said those who come into contact with confirmed or probable COVID-19 patients could be tested themselves, even if they do not show symptoms of the virus.

“Testing is meant to drive actions and achieve specific public health objectives. Everyone who needs a COVID-19 test, can get a test. Everyone who wants a test does not necessarily need a test; the key is to engage the needed public health community in the decision with the appropriate follow-up action,” Redfield said.

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A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services later said Redfield was “amplifying and explaining” the guidance, rather than walking back the earlier change.

The CDC revised its testing guidance on Monday, limiting tests to those who show symptoms. That change prompted backlash among public health experts who pointed to the role asymptomatic people play in spreading the virus, and concern that the revision had been dictated by political appointees outside of CDC.

Former CDC Director Tom Frieden was among those critical of the new guidelines.

“Not testing asymptomatic contacts allows Covid to spread. The CDC guidance is indefensible,” Frieden wrote on Twitter. “No matter who wrote it and got it posted on the CDC site, it needs to be changed.”

The revised guidelines on the agency's website from Monday were not changed after Redfield's clarifying statement on Thursday.

Before the revision, the CDC had recommended contacts of those infected with the virus be tested specifically because of the threat of asymptomatic or presymptomatic transmission.

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Redfield said the new guidelines were drafted in coordination with the White House coronavirus task force. The guidance comes as the number of coronavirus tests across the United States has fallen in recent weeks.

After reaching a peak of nearly a million new tests a month ago, the number of tests conducted on a daily basis has declined to fewer than 700,000 over the last four days, according to data maintained by the COVID Tracking Project, an independent group of researchers.

Updated at 3:27 p.m.