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The CDC shortens COVID isolation times for people who don't show symptoms


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says if you test positive for COVID-19 but you don't develop symptoms, you can go back to your life after isolating for five days. Under the old guidance, you would need to isolate for 10. We'll talk now about how this new recommendation is affected at the state level in a moment. But first, NPR health reporter Pien Huang joins us to discuss this new rule change.

All right, so the CDC is telling people who test positive they don't have to stay home as long - just five days - but we're in the middle of this surge of a more transmissible variant. Pien, is this a good idea?

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Well, the updated guidance doesn't actually apply to everyone. It's specific to people who don't develop any symptoms, even after testing positive and staying home. There have been some studies showing that people without symptoms are less likely to spread the virus. The guidance also goes on to say you can come out after five days, but please, please wear a mask for at least another five. Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at the NYU School of Medicine, is OK with this change with a caveat.

CELINE GOUNDER: I think the shortening of the isolation period is reasonable if that is paired with rapid antigen testing to come out of isolation at five days.

HUANG: Now, that's not required in the CDC guidance, but it is because some people can be infectious for longer than five days. But currently, we know that it's really hard to get COVID tested in a lot of places. Rapid antigen tests are sold out on shelves and online. And Gounder says she thinks that the policy could lead to some additional COVID spread if people aren't careful.

MARTÍNEZ: So why are they making this change now?

HUANG: Well, it comes at a time of big economic disruptions due to the rapid spread of COVID. Airlines are canceling flights, pro sports games postponed, restaurants shutting down, and the administration has been getting pressure from states to let up so that people can get back to work. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson told NPR that this change came as a direct request governors made to President Biden.

ASA HUTCHINSON: That's a result of the communication with governors, letting the White House know the flexibility that we need.

HUANG: Now, the CDC says that the change is motivated by science showing that it's not necessary to isolate for 10 days. The coronavirus spreads most when people are just getting sick and two to three days after that. But usually when the agency makes updates, they publish a scientific brief pointing to papers that back it up. Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist and adviser at the Pandemic Prevention Institute, says that didn't happen this time.

JESSICA MALATY RIVERA: And so, like, let's see it. Let's see the papers that talk about the incubation period, the viral loads, the rate of infection. I need to see all that so that we can justify this and make people feel confident in this redirection.

HUANG: Now, the agency could still come out later with a brief on the change, but without being clear about how the science has shifted, health experts say it might be what people with pandemic fatigue need to hear right now, but it also feels like it's politically, economically motivated.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, one of the main strategies for keeping the economy up and running, even in the middle of this pandemic, is being able to rely more heavily on testing and treatments. That does not seem to be happening.

HUANG: Yeah, people have been lining up at malls and around city blocks to get tested. Governors told President Biden that they needed more tests, and Biden said that he was working on it. As for treatments, the one monoclonal antibody that works against omicron is in short supply. Some big cities have completely run out. Last week, the FDA authorized two antiviral pills, and the government is distributing enough to treat around 360,000 people this month. So we're in this period where more tests, more treatments are coming in the next few weeks, but omicron is surging now.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR health reporter Pien Huang. Pien, thanks a lot.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.