Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The CDC may soon drop its isolation guidance for people with COVID-19


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may soon drop its isolation guidance for people with COVID. Currently, people who test positive are supposed to stay home for at least five days to reduce the chances of spreading the virus to others. NPR's Pien Huang joins us now to talk more about what we know. Hi there.


SUMMERS: So change is in the air, it seems. What do we know about what the CDC is up to here?

HUANG: So the short answer is that we know a little bit. The planned change was described this morning in an article in The Washington Post. It was attributed to several unnamed CDC officials. And according to the article, the CDC plans to drop the current five-day isolation period for people who test positive for COVID. They plan to rely on symptoms instead. So if you don't have a fever, if your symptoms are mild, you can still go to school, and you can still go to work. These changes could be coming as soon as April. But so far, Juana, the CDC is not confirming the report. A spokesperson for the agency said they have, quote, "no updates to COVID guidelines to announce at this time." But it does follow what some states, California and Oregon specifically, have already done.

SUMMERS: OK, so I understand there's no announcement yet, but why might they be doing this? Talk about the science. Has the virus or what we understand about COVID - has that changed?

HUANG: It has not. Here's Jennifer Nuzzo from the Brown University School of Public Health.

JENNIFER NUZZO: So first of all, the science of COVID has not changed. In no way do we suddenly think that you are not likely to be contagious shorter than five days or even potentially after five days.

HUANG: So this would not be a move designed to stop COVID from spreading. It's more of an acknowledgment that COVID spreading is now less consequential than it used to be, at least from a public health perspective. This winter deaths and hospitalizations did go up, but they were nowhere near as high as they were in previous years. And in fact, the hospitals were mostly OK, not overwhelmed this virus season. So even though the science hasn't changed, if you test positive for COVID, you're probably contagious for a few days at least. Stopping the spread of COVID might not be as important as it used to be, at least when you look at some of the key pandemic metrics.

SUMMERS: OK, so I'm curious how much of a difference a change like this would actually make. And do we know if people have even been following that guidance that we've gotten used to?

HUANG: Well, the reality is that even testing is more expensive now, and it's harder to access than it used to be. So people may not even be testing to know that they have COVID, let alone be taking the steps to isolate for it. But Jessica Malaty Rivera - she's an epidemiologist and adviser to The de Beaumont Foundation. She says the public health advice should be guiding people and not the other way around.

JESSICA MALATY RIVERA: It's like saying, well, people aren't really wearing their seat belts, so I guess we can say seat belts don't matter. That kind of defeats the purpose of providing evidence-based information. That's still the responsibility of public health to do that.

HUANG: And a change in CDC guidance could make a big difference, for instance, in workplace policies. So if the CDC stops recommending people stay home for a week with COVID, workers might be forced to go into work a little sick. They might spread the virus to others. And for those that are very young, old, immune-compromised or people who have other medical conditions, it just makes it that much harder for them to stay healthy.

SUMMERS: Right. I mean, listening to you, this all makes it sound like the CDC is going to be treating COVID more like the flu.

HUANG: Yeah, that's the way that it's going, but some health experts really wonder if that's the right model. Like, maybe instead of going with that status quo, we could pull our response to flu and other respiratory viruses more in the direction of COVID. So they say that we saw during COVID that with a little bit more effort, maybe masks and consideration for other people, we could just be doing a lot better in protecting people from these viruses.

SUMMERS: NPR's Pien Huang. Thank you, as always.

HUANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.