The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidelines on isolation for symptom-free COVID patients and for those exposed to the virus, prompting many experts and residents to question the decision and to urge those who have tested positive for COVID to remain cautious.
In Illinois, more than 20,000 new cases of COVID have been reported within the last 24 hours, continuing a rapid increase in cases throughout the state.
That increase has occurred in numerous locations throughout the United States, according to public health officials.
Even with the surge, attributed largely to the spread of the more-contagious omicron variant, the CDC announced Monday that it is shortening the recommended isolation time for individuals who have tested positive for COVID, but have no symptoms. That isolation time was cut in half, from 10 days to five days.
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Dr. Emily Landon of UChicago Medicine was asked to break down the new guidelines for NBC 5, and to explain the steps that residents need to take when adhering to the rules.
“When you’re completely better, with no more fever, then as long as you’ve been in isolation for at least five days, once you’re better you can come out of that isolation and go back to spending time without people, or go back to your job or other things, but you need to wear a good, high-quality mask until at least ten days are up,” she said.
The CDC defended its decision to shorten isolation time, saying that most COVID transmission has been shown to occur in the one-to-two days prior to symptoms appearing, and the following two-to-three days after they appear.
Landon cautioned residents not to necessarily rely on that exact timeline, saying that in many cases patients can remain contagious for a longer time period, and that is why wearing a mask is critical.
“Having to wear masks after the five days is essential to keeping your family and other people safe,” she said.
Another criticism of the new guidelines is that they allow people to leave isolation without getting tested to see if they are still infectious.
“It’s frankly reckless to proceed like this,” Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told NBC News. “Using a rapid test or some type of test to validate that the person isn’t infectious is vital.”
Some physicians have also pointed out that much of the science on how long COVID patients can remain contagious was done prior to the omicron variant becoming the dominant strain of the virus in the United States, and that it isn’t clear whether the viral load carried by patients decreases at the same rate in those infected by omicron.
The CDC guidelines were also changed for close contacts, with the CDC saying that those individuals who have received booster shots can skip quarantine entirely as long as they wear a mask for 10 days.
The CDC did say that unvaccinated individuals, as well as those who received their vaccination shots more than six months ago, will need to stay home for at least five days after exposure, and then wear a mask for the five days following that quarantine time.
“That’s just to make sure that you don’t accidentally start a whole big transmission chain of COVID, because your risk of having COVID is so much higher after having close contact with someone,” Landon said.
While the new guidance didn’t provide new rules for children and schools, Landon said the same approach to vaccination and quarantine should be in place.
“If you are a child who hasn’t been boosted and you got vaccinated more than six months ago, then you absolutely need to be doing the full five days of staying home if you’ve been exposed,” she said.