The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased COVID-19 guidelines on Thursday, freeing schools and businesses from requiring people exposed to the virus to quarantine at home.
The change is a swift move away from measures like social distancing requirements and quarantines, which had polarized much of the country, and effectively acknowledges the way many Americans have been navigating the pandemic for some time. The agency’s action comes as children return to school across the country and many offices reopen.
“We know that COVID-19 is here to stay,” CDC epidemiologist Greta Masetti said at a news briefing on Thursday. “The high levels of population immunity due to vaccination and past infections, and the many tools we have available to protect people from serious illness and death, put us in a different place.”
The new CDC guidelines come more than two years after a pandemic that has killed more than 1 million Americans. With the spread of the highly infectious BA.5 subvariant of Omicron, the United States is recording an average of more than 100,000 cases a day and nearly 500 deaths.
But many Americans abandoned practices like social distancing, quarantine and wearing masks long ago.
CDC is updating its guidance to help you better understand how to protect yourself and others from #COVID-19, Learn more: https://t.co/DmfPOAPMjW. pic.twitter.com/8F8U0iz2JU
— CDC (@CDCgov) 11 August 2022
“I think they’re trying to reconcile with the reality that everyone in the public is very much affected by this pandemic,” said Michael T., an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota. Osterholm said, referring to the CDC.
The agency has been working for months on the new guidance, which builds on previous recommendations issued in February, when the agency shortened isolation times for many Americans. The CDC said it is making changes now because vaccination and prior infections have provided some degree of protection for many Americans from the virus, and treatments, vaccines and boosters are available to reduce the risk of serious illness.
The changes shift most of the responsibility for risk reduction from institutions to individuals. The CDC no longer recommends that people stay 6 feet away from others. Instead, it notes that avoiding crowded areas and keeping a distance from others are strategies people can consider to reduce their risk.
And recommended prevention strategies no longer differentiate between those who are up to date on their vaccinations and those who are not, streamlining a complex set of rules that can be difficult for schools and businesses to navigate.
The CDC has updated its COVID guidance to relax many of its health recommendations. @DrLaPook There is information about the new guidelines. pic.twitter.com/L5b1vMCHEK
— CBS Evening News (@CBSEeveningNews) 11 August 2022
As per the new guidelines, people who have been exposed to the virus should no longer be home quarantined, regardless of vaccination status, although they should wear a mask for 10 days and get tested for the virus on the 5th day. Contact tracing and routine surveillance testing of people without symptoms are no longer recommended in most settings.
Rather than focusing on slowing the transmission of the virus, the recommendations prioritize preventing serious illness. They stress the importance of vaccination and other prevention measures, including antiviral treatment and ventilation.
Guidelines about masking – which recommend that people wear them indoors in places where community COVID-19 levels are high – have not changed.
And those who test positive for the virus must still isolate at home for at least five days. People who had moderate or severe disease, or are immunocompromised, should be isolated through Day 10.
The agency also addressed rebound infections that some people reported after taking the antiviral treatment Paxlovid; The CDC said that if symptoms return, people should restart the clock on isolation.
Many health experts praised the new guidelines as representing a practical approach to living with the virus for a long time.
“I think it’s a welcome change,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It really shows how far we have come.”
He said that the new guidelines will also be easier for the public to follow.
But the pandemic is not over, experts noted, and more stringent measures may be needed in the event of new variants or a future surge.
While nearly all Americans are now eligible for vaccination, many are not up to date on their shots. Just 30% of 5 to 11-year-olds and 60% of 12 to 17-year-olds have received their primary vaccine series nationwide. Among adults 65 and older, who are at highest risk of serious disease, 65% have received a booster. Important therapeutics, such as antiviral treatment, are difficult for many people to access.
“Obviously, we have to do more work to make sure that more people get the most out of the security of those devices and that more people can access those devices,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Epidemiology Center at Brown University School. of public health. “I think there has been an overall dial-back in the ground game that is needed to get people vaccinated.”
Guidance moves from broad, population-level precautions to more targeted advice for vulnerable populations and specific high-risk settings and situations.
For example, the guidelines note that schools may want to consider monitoring testing in certain scenarios, such as when students are returning from school breaks or who are participating in contact sports.
Unvaccinated students who have been exposed to the virus will no longer need to be tested frequently to remain in class, an approach known as “testing to stay”. The CDC no longer recommends a practice known as cohabitation, in which schools divide students into small groups and limit contact between them to reduce the risk of viral transmission.
Health experts said the change in guidance is particularly welcome as students go back to school, a setting in which the quarantine was particularly disruptive.
“It will really help reduce the impact of COVID-19 on education,” said Christina Ramirez, a biostatistician at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Mercedes Carnethan, an epidemiologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said she did not see a change, even as an easing of the agency’s guidance, to end the quarantine in favor of 10 days of masking .
“We know for certain that wearing a high-quality mask is going to provide some of the strongest protection against spreading it to someone else, and quarantine is logistically cumbersome,” she said. “This can be seen as a relaxation of guidelines, but I think it is a more appropriate and targeted solution.”
Harvard University researcher Joseph Allen, who studies indoor environmental quality, praised the new guidelines for placing greater emphasis on improving ventilation.
“Good ventilation is something that helps reduce the risk of transmission which is not political and does not require any behavior change,” he said.