The new CDC COVID-19 isolation and quarantine rules are controversial

As we continue to move through the COVID-19 pandemic, our knowledge about the virus and how it spreads has been changing. This has led to guidance from agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that changes periodically. Now, the CDC has announced new quarantine guidelines for those who have been exposed to COVID-19 or who have contracted asymptomatic COVID-19, and it may leave some people scratching their heads.

What are the CDC's new guidelines?

In a statement issued this week, the CDC announced that it was shortening the recommended quarantine time for those diagnosed with COVID-19 from 10 days to 5 days. If, after five days, the infected person is asymptomatic, the CDC says they may leave isolation but recommends they wear a mask for a further five days to decrease the chances of spreading the virus.

If you're unvaccinated, it's been more than six months since your last mRNA vaccine dose, or more than two months since receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the CDC recommends that you quarantine for five days if you're exposed to COVID. Following that five-day isolation period, the CDC recommends that you adhere to strict mask usage for another five days.

Those who have received a booster dose, on the other hand, don't need to quarantine at all following exposure to someone with COVID-19, though the CDC still recommends wearing a mask for ten days following exposure. The agency also recommends that everyone potentially exposed take a test five days after exposure, and isolate when symptoms develop until a negative COVID test is obtained.

In a statement, the CDC said that the shifting isolation recommendations were based on "science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and 2-3 after." Additionally, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that these new guidelines will mean that people don't necessarily need to put their lives on hold just because they've been exposed to someone who's COVID-19-positive.

"The Omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society," Dr. Walensky said in a statement. "CDC's updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine balance what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses. These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives. Prevention is our best option: get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial and high community transmission, and take a test before you gather."

New quarantine recommendations are a rare shift in guidance

Our understanding of COVID-19 has changed rapidly throughout the pandemic, which often leads to shifting guidance from scientists and epidemiologists. While guidance has been fluid throughout the pandemic, one thing that's stayed relatively consistent is the CDC's guidelines on isolation and quarantine. For much of the pandemic, the CDC recommended that those who were exposed to COVID-19 quarantine for 14 days, reducing it to 10 days earlier this year.

Now, with the new recommendation set at five days, some might be wondering if that's too little. In a recent call between President Biden and the National Governors Association, the President was asked if he supported the reduction in recommended quarantine time. His reply was straightforward, with the President saying, "I listen to my medical team. When I get a recommendation, I follow it."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who serves as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to the President, has said that the CDC cut the recommended isolation time so those who are asymptomatic can return to work quicker. As reported by The Hill, Fauci said there's concern that with a more infectious variant like Omicron, we have too many asymptomatic people out of work at once under the older guidance.

"The reason is that with the sheer volume of new cases that we are having and that we expect to continue with omicron, one of the things we want to be careful of is we don't have so many people out," Fauci said in a CNN interview. He added that the recommendation "makes sense," as focusing too much on isolating asymptomatic individuals could leave critical roles unfilled by people who otherwise may be able to work.

However, with fears that the Omicron variant could be much more transmissive than the Delta variant, this decision from the CDC may be a controversial one. More data ultimately needs to be collected on the Omicron variant before we have a clear picture on just how dangerous and infectious it is, but for now, at least, the CDC seems to be okay with easing recommendations on asymptomatic individuals.