Experts encourage CDC to shorten COVID-19 quarantine: '14 days is a long time'

Abby Haglage
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reportedly planning to shorten its quarantine guidelines for those who believe they had a COVID-19 exposure. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reportedly planning to shorten its quarantine guidelines for those who believe they had a COVID-19 exposure. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may soon shorten its quarantine guidelines for those who believe they have been exposed to COVID-19, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. The move, which has been floated in the past, is reportedly aimed at motivating more people to quarantine.

Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC’s director of the division of preparedness and emerging infections, told the Wall Street Journal that an increase in the availability and accuracy of tests are part of what’s driving the change. “We do think that the work that we’ve done, and some of the studies we have and the modeling data that we have, shows that we can with testing shorten quarantines,” Walke said.

According to the WSJ, the new recommendation — which is reportedly in the final stages of approval — would suggest individuals who were exposed to someone with COVID-19 quarantine for between seven and 10 days, and then get tested before seeing other people. So how does that differ from the current guidelines and what do experts think about the possible shift? Here’s what you need to know.

The current CDC guidelines call for a 14-day quarantine

The new guideline would be a significant departure from the CDC’s current quarantine recommendations, which state that “anyone who has had close contact with someone with COVID-19 should stay home for 14 days after their last exposure to that person.” The guidance exempts those who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the last three months — as long as symptoms do not reappear.

The shorter quarantine time is likely a reflection of incubation period

Although the full incubation period for COVID-19 is technically between two and 14 days, the amended guidelines from the CDC would reflect a growing body of evidence showing that the median incubation period from exposure to onset of symptoms is five days. Yes, a positive test can occur after 10 days, but experts say it is extremely rare, which is why the organization may be considering shortening it.

“The majority of people who are going to test positive or become contagious or symptomatic with COVID-19 do it in the first several days after exposure,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “So it becomes increasingly unlikely as you get further into the quarantine period, and that evidence has been mounting over time.”

Dr. Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist and infection preventionist at George Mason University, confirms this. “We are seeing that the shorter incubation period is most common and that’s what this new guidance reflects,” she says.

Experts believe including a testing recommendation provides a good “benchmark”

The CDC’s current quarantine guidance for those exposed to COVID-19 does not include getting a test, but the new guidance may suggest doing so. Yahoo Life medical contributor Dr. Dara Kass believes that would be a great addition. “The idea is that if you pair a negative test with a reasonable period of time for incubation, you should be able to tighten the period of time you need to be entirely quarantined,” she says.

Kass believes that format motivates people to take it seriously. “The more we can define quarantine and isolation and the more we can give people real benchmarks that anchor them with data and get away from this symptomatic surveillance, the better we’re going to get at actually following through on it.”

Most agree that 14 days is a difficult amount of time

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, says he and many others have been pushing for a change to quarantine recommendations — not only because of more available testing and shorter incubation periods but because it’s more feasible. “Fourteen days is a very long time to be quarantined for anybody,” Schaffner says. “Whether you’re a student, a teacher, that’s a long time and if we could cut that in half — or almost in half — that would be terrific.”

Kass agrees. “Given the fact that many people are not quarantining after exposure at all ... isn’t it better to have guidelines that 95 to 99 percent of people use then ‘more perfect’ or longer guidelines that only 50 percent of people use?” she asks. Her hope is that this may make it easier for those who are exposed and need to miss work. “It has an endpoint. So you know for certain that an employee who tests negative and at the end of it can come back to work safely in a mask with good protocols.”

It’s those good protocols that Popescu wants to emphasize — and hopes the CDC will too. “I feel that this change needs to come with a lot of public communication,” Popescu says. “And that even after quarantine, people still need to abide by infection prevention measures like masking and distancing.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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