The U.S. has officially entered a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that people exposed to the virus no longer need to quarantine at home regardless of their vaccination status, but they still need to self-isolate if they test positive. This frees businesses and schools of having to send workers and students home just as school goes back in session and more businesses bring their employees back onsite.
Officials updated the quarantine guidelines at a time when many Americans are no longer paying attention to the pandemic. Social distancing and self-isolation have become increasingly divisive around the country, and the CDC seems to be altering its approach based on the way people live their lives.
“We know that Covid-19 is here to stay,” Greta Massetti, a CDC epidemiologist, said at a news briefing on Thursday. “High levels of population immunity due to vaccination and previous infection, and the many tools that we have available to protect people from severe illness and death, have put us in a different place.”
While the number of new COVID-19 infections has declined dramatically over the last six months, the pandemic remains a threat. The highly contagious BA.5 subvariant of Omicron is spreading fast with more than 100,000 new cases and nearly 500 deaths being reported every day on average.
But Americans grew tired of wearing masks and social distancing a long time ago.
“I think they are attempting to meet up with the reality that everyone in the public is pretty much done with this pandemic,” said Michael T. Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, referring to the CDC.
The last time officials updated the isolation guidelines was back in February when the agency reduced the isolation timeline for many Americans. But rising vaccination rates and built-in immunity from prior infections have reduced the threat of the virus.
The CDC still notes that people may want to stay six feet away from others and avoid large groups if they are worried about their health.
Even though those exposed to the virus no longer need to self-isolate, they should wear a mask for 10 days and get tested for the virus on Day 5, according to the new guidelines. The change applies to all Americans regardless of whether they have had their shots. Finding out who is vaccinated and who is not could be onerous for schools and businesses.
The guidelines around masking have not changed. The agency still recommends people keep their face masks on when indoors in an area where transmission levels are high.
Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 should still self-isolate for five days. Those who had moderate or severe illness, or are immunocompromised, should isolate through Day 10.
The shift in policy denotes a change in approach for public health officials. They are no longer concerned with the slow transmission of the virus. They are more focused on preventing severe illness.
COVID-19 is clearly here to stay, and many experts praised the agency for its pragmatic approach to living with the virus.
“I think this a welcome change,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It actually shows how far we’ve come.”
However, experts noted that the pandemic is not over, and the guidelines could still change if the country gets hit with another variant or subvariant.
Meanwhile, vaccination rates have flatlined.
“Obviously, we have to do more work to make sure that more people avail themselves of the protection that those tools have to offer and that more people can access those tools,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Pandemic Center at the Brown University School of Public Health. “I do think there’s been an overall dial-back in the ground game that’s needed to get people vaccinated.”
The new rules are expected to have a noticeable impact on schools.
Unvaccinated students no longer need to test frequently in order to remain in the classroom, an approach known as “test to stay.” The CDC no longer recommends a practice known as cohorting, in which schools divide students into smaller groups and limit contact between them to reduce the risk of viral transmission.
The change should help students and educators get back to normal in the new school year.
“This really will help to minimize the impact of Covid-19 on education,” said Christina Ramirez, a biostatistician at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The agency also put more emphasis on environmental factors that can reduce transmission instead of focusing on individual behavior. For example, the guidelines put a renewed emphasis on ventilation.
“Good ventilation is something that helps reduce the risk of transmission that isn’t political and doesn’t require any behavior change,” said Joseph Allen, a Harvard University researcher who studies indoor environmental quality.