US cuts isolation rule to just five days as Omicron rages

·3-min read

Health officials in the United States have cut isolation restrictions for Americans who catch the coronavirus from 10 to five days, and similarly shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine.

The country's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the guidance is in keeping with growing evidence that people with Covid-19 are most infectious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop.

The decision also was driven by a recent surge in Covid cases, propelled by the omicron variant.

Early research suggests omicron may cause milder illnesses than earlier versions of the coronavirus. But the sheer number of people becoming infected — and therefore having to isolate or quarantine — threatens to crush the ability of hospitals, airlines and other businesses to stay open.

A woman wearing a mask prays at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in New York. Source: Getty
A woman wearing a mask prays at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in New York. Source: Getty

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the country is about to see a lot of omicron cases.

"Not all of those cases are going to be severe. In fact many are going to be asymptomatic," she told The Associated Press. 

"We want to make sure there is a mechanism by which we can safely continue to keep society functioning while following the science."

Last week, the agency loosened rules that previously called on health care workers to stay out of work for 10 days if they test positive. The new recommendations said workers could go back to work after seven days if they test negative and don’t have symptoms. And the agency said isolation time could be cut to five days, or even fewer, if there are severe staffing shortages.

Now, the CDC is changing the isolation and quarantine guidance for the general public to be even less stringent.

The change is aimed at people who are not experiencing symptoms. People with symptoms during isolation, or who develop symptoms during quarantine, are encouraged to stay home.

The CDC’s isolation and quarantine guidance has confused the public, and the new recommendations are "happening at a time when more people are testing positive for the first time and looking for guidance," said Lindsay Wiley, an American University public health law expert.

The current 7-day moving average of daily new cases in the US stands at 122,297, up 1.5 per cent from the week before, according to the CDC. 

Still risks after five days of isolation

Suspending both isolation and quarantine after five days is not without risk.

A lot of people get tested when they first feel symptoms, but many Americans get tested for others reasons, like to see if they can visit family or for work. That means a positive test result may not reveal exactly when a person was infected or give a clear picture of when they are most contagious, experts say.

When people get infected, the risk of spread drops substantially after five days, but it does not disappear for everyone, said Dr Aaron Glatt, a New York physician who is a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

"If you decrease it to five days, you're still going to have a small but significant number of people who are contagious," he said.

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