CDC shortens COVID-19 quarantine to 'reduce burden' on Americans

Abby Haglage
·5 min read

In a move praised by epidemiologists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shortened the recommended quarantine time for those exposed to COVID-19 who are not showing symptoms, suggesting seven days for those with a negative test and 10 days for those without one. The organization encourages Americans to get a test in the “final two days” of quarantine, either via PCR or a rapid antigen test.

The new guidance is a departure from the 14-day quarantine initially put in place by the CDC, which did not mention testing. During a press call Wednesday, the CDC noted that a two-week quarantine is still the optimal way to protect against spreading the virus, but with COVID-19 cases trending upward in nearly every state, experts agree that a reduced quarantine may encourage more Americans to stay home.

Here’s what you need to know about the new guidance.

The decision is intended to reduce the mental, physical and financial burden to Americans

In a scientific brief accompanying the decision, the CDC acknowledged that a two-week quarantine, for many Americans, is not feasible. “Quarantine is intended to reduce the risk that infected persons might unknowingly transmit infection to others. It also ensures that persons who become symptomatic or are otherwise diagnosed during quarantine can be rapidly brought to care and evaluated,” the CDC writes. “However, a 14-day quarantine can impose personal burdens that may affect physical and mental health as well as cause economic hardship that may reduce compliance.”

The organization goes on to note that a longer quarantine may also “pose additional burdens on public health systems and communities” as well as “dissuade recently diagnosed persons from naming contacts.” For these reasons, the CDC concludes: “Reducing the length of quarantine will reduce the burden and may increase community compliance.”

The guidance is informed by research showing that the infection often emerges in the first week

Data has shown that the incubation period for COVID-19 is technically between two and 14 days, but experts say that data throughout the pandemic has shown that the infection often appears within the first week. “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,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Yahoo Life in an earlier interview. “So it becomes increasingly unlikely as you get further into the quarantine period, and that evidence has been mounting over time.”

On its website, the CDC writes that the median time from exposure to the onset of symptoms is four to five days, and cites a study showing that 97 percent of people with COVID-19 symptoms developed them within 11.5 days of becoming infected. Using data like this, the CDC modeled what it calls the “residual post-quarantine transmission risk” on each day leading up to the 14 days and estimated that at day seven, with a negative test, the risk of later infection is 5 percent, and by day 10, it drops to 1 percent.

The CDC determined that the risk of not quarantining is greater than the risk of later infection

Although there is a small chance of developing an infection post-day-10, CDC officials determined that an extended quarantine that many Americans ignore constitutes a higher risk than a shorter one that they follow.

People arrive in cars for Covid-19 tests at a coronavirus testing site in Los Angeles, California on November 30, 2020 following the Thanksgiving holiday. - Los Angeles County's new stay-at-home restrictions took effect on November 30, 2020, one day after the county reported more than 5,000 new COVID-19 cases. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
The CDC now says those who received a negative PCR test can quarantine for seven days instead of 14 after a COVID-19 exposure. (Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP)

“Fourteen days is a very long time to be quarantined for anybody,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, told Yahoo Life in an earlier interview as the CDC was reportedly considering a shortened quarantine period. “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.”

Experts expressed agreement with the CDC’s changes on Twitter, underscoring the importance of a recommendation that is feasible for individuals to follow.

“New guidance from CDC to shorten COVID-19 quarantine to 10 days or 7 days + test is very welcome,” tweeted Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University School of Public Health. “We need policies that increase compliance, as a ‘perfect’ policy on paper doesn’t do much good if people are not following it.”

Yahoo Life Medical Contributor Dr. Dara Kass agrees that the policy makes sense. “We’re probably catching the overwhelming majority of cases with a negative test by day 10,” Kass told Yahoo Life in an earlier interview. “Is there anybody that’s ever converted [to positive] on day 11 or day 12? There might be. But given the fact that people are not quarantining after exposure at all ... isn’t it better to have guidelines that 95 to 99 percent of people use than ‘more perfect’ or longer guidelines that only 50 percent of people use?”

Testing is a new addition to the guidance and hinges on availability

Aside from the reduced timeline, the other big change in the CDC’s guidance is the recommendation that those who want to end quarantine at day seven opt for a test. The organization notes that this test should occur “within 48 hours before the time of planned quarantine discontinuation” and can either be done through rapid test or PCR. If a delay occurs in the results, quarantine should continue until they are received.

The organization adds that the seven-day quarantine with a negative test should only take place in communities where they are readily available. “Testing for the purpose of earlier discontinuation of quarantine should be considered only if it will have no impact on community diagnostic testing,” the organization writes. “Testing of persons seeking evaluation for infection must be prioritized.”

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.

Read more from Yahoo Life

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.