Here’s Why the New CDC Recommendations for Quarantine Are Causing So Much Controversy


Update (January 5, 2022):

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is addressing criticism over the updated quarantine guidelines they released in December. The new CDC recommendations for quarantine shortened the isolation period for people who test positive for COVID-19 from 10 days to just five days, and notably did not require a negative COVID-19 test for individuals to end their quarantine. 

The update immediately drew considerable backlash from public health officials and medical experts who argued the agency was essentially giving the green light for people who were still testing positive for COVID-19 to re-enter society as long as they wore a mask. 

Despite this, on Tuesday, the CDC released an additional statement, essentially doubling down on the lack of requirement for a negative COVID-19 test. The latest guidelines state: “You can end isolation after five full days if you are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication and your other symptoms have improved (Loss of taste and smell may persist for weeks or months after recovery and need not delay the end of isolation​).”

The CDC did, however, include guidance for those who have access to COVID-19 tests and want to take one before ending isolation. The best approach, the guidelines state, is to use a rapid home test (a.k.a. an antigen test) toward the end of the five-day isolation period.

“Collect the test sample only if you are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication and your other symptoms have improved.” If your results are positive, the CDC advises you continue to isolate for a full 10 days. If it’s negative, you can end isolation but “continue to wear a well-fitting mask around others at home and in public until day 10.” 

Original report (January 3, 2021): 

Before closing out 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention left us with a somewhat puzzling gift: new CDC recommendations for quarantine. In a statement issued on December 27, the public health regulators shortened the recommended isolation period for those who have tested positive for COVID-19 to just five days. They added that if people are “asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving (without fever for 24 hours), follow that [isolation period] by five days of wearing a mask when around others to minimize the risk of infecting people they encounter.” 

The CDC had previously been recommending people who tested positive for COVID-19 isolate for 10 days, so the loosening up of restrictions amidst a record-high surge in COVID-19 cases came as a surprise to many. The new guidelines sparked questions, confusion and a seemingly endless stream of “CDC recommends” memes. 

So, what’s the deal? Here’s everything you need to know about the new CDC recommendations for quarantine.

What’s the reasoning for a shorter isolation period?

The CDC’s changes are based on data. “The change is motivated by 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 the 2-3 days after,” the guidelines state. That means you’re most likely to spread the virus in the first five days after being infected, regardless of when you test positive.

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