Americans who test positive for the coronavirus can self-isolate for just five days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says – down from the 10 days the agency previously recommended.
The new guideline comes as the Omicron variant of the virus spreads rapidly across the United States, causing a high number of mild or asymptomatic cases.
“Not all of those cases are going to be severe,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky told the Associated Press on Monday. “We want to make sure there is a mechanism by which we can safely continue to keep society functioning while following the science.”
After a person tests positive for SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes the disease called Covid-19 – the CDC recommends that he or she begin a period of “isolation,” staying at home and avoiding others. For those exposed to a person who tested positive, the agency recommends a period of “quarantine,” which has slightly different rules.
On Monday, the CDC shortened its recommendations for both isolation and quarantine, each by the same amount – from 10 days to five.
In a statement, the agency said these changes reflect the latest data on when the virus is most contagious.
“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 CDC said.
The agency emphasized that infected persons and those exposed to them should observe “strict mask use” for five days after their isolation or quarantine ends.
The Omicron variant now makes up the majority of new coronavirus cases in the US, burdening some states with their highest caseloads so far. Some studies have suggested that Omicron causes less severe illness than previous variants, but experts still worry the sheer number of cases could overwhelm hospitals.
The best way to avoid that, officials say, is for more Americans to get vaccinated, and for already-vaccinated Americans to get a booster shot.
“Prevention is our best option,” Dr Walensky said. “Get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial and high community transmission, and take a test before you gather.”
So far, only 62 per cent of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated.