If a 14-day quarantine just isn’t feasible for you after a possible COVID-19 exposure, new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) quarantine guidelines say you may be able to shorten it to just seven or 10 days—with a few extra precautions.
Since basically the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC and other health authorities have recommended quarantining yourself for 14 days after an exposure to someone with the coronavirus. That’s because we know it can take up to 14 days for someone with the infection to start showing symptoms and because we know that people can still spread the infection without having noticeable symptoms. So, out of an abundance of caution, we’ve been told to quarantine ourselves for two weeks to be sure that we don’t unwittingly expose others.
But experts also now recognize that most people who are going to develop coronavirus symptoms do so between five and six days after exposure, the World Health Organization says. So, although a quarantine for a full 14 days is still ideal, it is likely not totally necessary for the majority of people who are exposed.
Knowing that, and understanding that a longer quarantine puts a heavy burden on both the individual and local public health resources, the CDC will update its quarantine guidelines this week to offer two shorter “acceptable alternative quarantine periods,” Henry Walke, M.D., COVID-19 incident manager for the CDC, said in a press call.
If 14 days isn’t an option for you, Dr. Walke said you can end your quarantine after 10 days if you have no symptoms. Or you can end it after just seven days if you have no symptoms and you receive a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of ending the quarantine. However, you will still be required to monitor yourself for coronavirus symptoms for the full 14-day period.
It’s still best to quarantine for 14 days after exposure if that’s feasible for you. But both research and modeling from the CDC and outside agencies has shown the risk of spreading the infection when ending quarantine earlier than that is small, experts on the call said.
Another reason for the change is that the CDC has received anecdotal reports that people aren’t able to stay in quarantine for a full 14 days due to work or school obligations. And if shortening the quarantine time helps people stick with it, that may result in fewer infections overall, the experts said. However, the CDC’s recommended timing for isolation—reserved for those with a confirmed or presumed case of COVID-19—has not changed. Those who tested positive for the infection and had no symptoms can be around others again starting 10 days after the positive test. But those who had symptoms must wait until 10 days after the symptoms appeared and must go 24 hours without a fever and without the use of fever-reducing medications.
It’s important to remember though that shortening your quarantine does still come with some risk. And that a negative COVID-19 test is helpful, but not a substitute for all the other public health measures we should be taking right now, such as social distancing, wearing a mask, and washing our hands frequently.