CDC is about to make a surprising change to coronavirus quarantine guidelines

  • The CDC is working on a big change to coronavirus quarantine guidelines for people who have been in contact with infected individuals.
  • The new recommendations will advise a quarantine period of 7-10 days instead of 14 days — that’s right, the timeframe will actually be shortened.
  • Ending the quarantine will require a negative COVID-19 test.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommend a 14-day quarantine period for anyone who has been in contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19. The measure is meant to reduce the risk of presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission, in order to help stop the spread of the disease. After contact with a COVID-19-positive person, an individual risks developing symptoms anywhere from two to 14 days after that contact. Moreover, the contact individual would also be infectious a few days before the onset of symptoms, at which point he or she could unknowingly spread the illness to other people. In a move that will surprise many people, however, CDC officials are now working on new guidelines that could reduce the quarantine period significantly.

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Adm. Brett Giroir said Tuesday that health officials are rethinking the current quarantine guidelines, citing “a preponderance of evidence that a shorter quarantine complemented by a test might be able to shorten that quarantine period.” Giroir is a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. “We are actively working on that type of guidance right now, reviewing the evidence, but we want to make absolutely sure,” he said, adding that “these kind of recommendations aren’t willy nilly,” he added.

A source familiar with the matter told NPR that the exact language of the new guidelines and the plans to announce it remains unclear. But the person said that the recommended quarantine period could drop to 7-10 days for people who then test negative for the virus.

A positive test result would obviously not lift the quarantine. In fact, it would lead to another period of isolation. The CDC currently recommends at least 10 days of isolation after the onset of symptoms. People who do not develop symptoms can stop isolating 10 days after their first positive test.

Some say that the planned changes to quarantine recommendations are welcome, as they could help with contact tracing campaigns. “I was really glad to hear CDC is considering this,” Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security’s Jennifer Nuzzo told NPR. “Shortening quarantine recommendations to focus on the period of time during which the vast majority of people who are exposed to the virus are likely to become contagious is a smart, pragmatic move that is likely to boost compliance.”

She continued, “Right now, contact tracing efforts in the U.S. are severely hindered by deep disincentives for contacts of cases to quarantine. A seven or ten-day quarantine recommendation may be easier for people to bear and hopefully may help get more contacts of cases to comply.”

The US isn’t the only country reconsidering coronavirus quarantine rules. The UK is looking at implementing a “test to release” regime beginning on December 15th that would apply to incoming travelers. Currently, people who enter the country have to isolate for 14 days. The two-week period could be replaced by the five-day isolation period as long as international travelers book a COVID-19 test before their arrival from one of the government-approved suppliers.

Airlines are lobbying for a pre-departure test that could further reduce the need for isolation. However, the nature of this illness makes such a strategy somewhat problematic. People who are still early in their incubation periods might not produce enough virus to test positive if the sample is collected too soon after contact with an infected individual.

Others in the travel industry are already looking at the immediate future of international travel, saying that vaccination may be required for international flights.

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