CDC loosens virus guidance to deemphasize social distancing, routine screening of healthy people


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened its COVID-19 advice Thursday to focus on vulnerable persons and deemphasize regular screening of healthy people or the 6-foot rule that became sacrosanct during the height of the pandemic.

The new guidance also says persons who’ve failed to remain up to date on their vaccination and booster shots do not need to quarantine at home if they were exposed to the coronavirus.

Instead, the CDC says people should wear a high-quality mask for 10 days and get tested on the fifth day after exposure. This streamlines guidance so that all persons are given the same advice regardless of vaccination or booster status.

Taken together, the new guidance signals a shift toward treating the virus as an everyday facet of life instead of an emergency. CDC advice doesn’t have the force of law but state mandates or local rules often flow from what the agency says.

Some health experts are likely to view the guidance as risky, since there may be another winter wave of the virus and illness in the months ahead.

Yet the Biden administration says that while it takes the virus seriously, it wants to rely on vaccines and treatments such as Pfizer’s antiviral pill, Paxlovid, as sufficient bulwarks against severe illness.

“We’re in a stronger place today as a nation, with more tools — like vaccination, boosters, and treatments — to protect ourselves, and our communities, from severe illness from COVID-19,” said Greta Massetti, a CDC scientist. “We also have a better understanding of how to protect people from being exposed to the virus, like wearing high-quality masks, testing and improved ventilation. This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives.”

The CDC still says persons who test positive for the virus should isolate at home for at least five days. It does not recommend a negative test before exiting isolation, a measure that some experts have called for because they fear some people might still be contagious after five days.

One notable shift in the guidance regards routine screening for the virus. It suggests places like schools or businesses do not need to test as a matter of course if people aren’t showing symptoms and there is no reason to think they face outsized risk from the virus.

“Ill persons should seek testing for active infection when they are symptomatic or if they have a known or suspected exposure to someone with COVID-19,” the CDC said in a document outlining its advice. “When considering whether and where to implement screening testing of asymptomatic persons with no known exposure, public health officials might consider prioritizing high-risk congregate settings, such as long-term care facilities, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities, and workplace settings that include congregate housing with limited access to medical care.”

It says that if places do implement screening, they should include all persons regardless of vaccination status — an acknowledgment of the fact the shots may prevent severe disease but vaccination persons can still be infected.

On physical distancing, the CDC says persons at high risk of disease should consider avoiding crowds and maintaining distance. Other persons should incorporate other factors, such as ventilation and community spread, alongside distance when figuring out how to protect themselves.


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