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CDC no longer gently recommends COVID precautions most weren’t following anyway

Huge facade for CDC headquarters against a beautiful sky.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its pandemic guidance today, offering slightly looser recommendations that likely won’t change much about how Americans handle the pandemic these days.

According to the updated guidance, people who are not up-to-date on their vaccinations—i.e., unvaccinated people or people who have not received the recommended number of boosters—no longer need to quarantine if they know they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Instead, if a not up-to-date person is exposed, the CDC now recommends they wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure and get tested for COVID-19 on day 5. Currently, roughly 68 percent of the US population is not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccination.

This guidance update essentially ends all COVID-19-related quarantine recommendations since the CDC had previously said that those who are up to date on their vaccines do not need to quarantine but only wear a mask for 10 days and test.

Although it’s unclear how many people were still quarantining, the end of COVID quarantining spurs one significant change, likely the most consequential of all the updates announced today: the end of the CDC’s recommendation for school “test-to-stay” policies. These were policies in which not up-to-date students could use negative test results to remain in school after an exposure. This was an alternative to requiring such students to quarantine. But, in the absence of any quarantine recommendation, the test-to-stay strategy is now unnecessary.

Otherwise, the updated guidance backs off suggestions for testing to screen people without symptoms or known exposures—such as requiring healthy people to test negative for events. “Screening testing might not be cost-effective in general community settings, especially if COVID-19 prevalence is low,” according to the guidance published today in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The CDC says screening might be most useful in high-risk congregate settings, such as long-term care facilities, correctional facilities, or homeless shelters.

The guidance also de-emphasizes physical distancing as a primary mitigation effort. Instead, the CDC now says that people should consider distancing “just one component of how to protect yourself and others.” People should consider factors such as COVID-19 Community Levels and ventilation when deciding if physical distancing is necessary, the agency said.

Living with it

The CDC’s looser guidance is the latest shift from public health messaging toward individuals’ choices. At the beginning of the pandemic, public health officials stressed the need for collective efforts to lower transmission in communities, protect the most vulnerable, and reduce the risk of creating new variants. But the current messaging stresses personal decision-making rather than community-wide effects.

“Persons can use information about the current level of COVID-19 impact on their community to decide which prevention behaviors to use and when (at all times or at specific times), based on their own risk for severe illness and that of members of their household, their risk tolerance, and setting-specific factors,” the new guidance states.

The CDC says it’s focusing on “sustainable measures.” the agency also says its guidance reflects that the vast majority of the population has some immunity against COVID-19—from vaccination or prior infection—which lowers the risk of severe disease and death.

“We’re in a stronger place today as a nation, with more tools—like vaccination, boosters, and treatments—to protect ourselves, and our communities, from severe illness from COVID-19,” Greta Massetti, lead author of the CDC’s guidance, said in a statement. “We also have a better understanding of how to protect people from being exposed to the virus, like wearing high-quality masks, testing, and improved ventilation. This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives.”

Currently, the CDC is reporting that 40 percent of US counties have high levels of COVID-19 Community Levels and should therefore require masking in public indoor settings. Nearly 94 percent of counties, meanwhile, have high COVID-19 transmission levels, according to the latest CDC data.

For those who get COVID-19 moving forward, the CDC still recommends isolation—guidance on this has not changed. People who test positive for COVID-19 should isolate for five or more days and wear a mask for 10 days. The CDC still does not suggest that people need to test negative before leaving their isolation. But, if they do want to use testing to end isolation or masking early, the CDC notes that people should use two consecutive negative tests 48 hours apart.

On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration separately advised that at-home COVID-19 tests can yield false negatives. For those who do not have symptoms but have been exposed to COVID-19, the FDA now recommends people take three tests, each 48 hours apart, to confirm they are not infected.

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