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Citing lower risk, CDC changes COVID-19 exposure guidelines

New guidelines come after Americans grow increasingly weary of pandemic mitigation measures

A sign reminding riders to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 appears on a bus outside the Capitol in January. The CDC on Thursday eased guidelines for those exposed to the virus.
A sign reminding riders to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 appears on a bus outside the Capitol in January. The CDC on Thursday eased guidelines for those exposed to the virus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased COVID-19 exposure and quarantine guidelines Thursday, saying that between population-level immunity and available treatments, the risk of contracting severe COVID-19 is now extremely low in the United States.

The new approach is meant to reduce strain on hospitals while also reducing barriers to everyday activity, and comes as data indicates Americans are fed up with mitigation practices, but as COVID-19 hospitalizations are slowly ticking upward.

“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,” said Greta Massetti, chief of the CDC Field Epidemiology and Prevention Branch.

For those exposed to COVID-19, the CDC recommends wearing a mask for 10 days rather than quarantining as previously recommended for the unvaccinated, with those exposed wearing a high-quality mask for five days and then testing on the fifth day.

The agency reemphasized that people who test positive for COVID-19 only need to isolate for five days, monitoring their symptoms day by day before deciding to exit isolation. It noted that those who test positive for COVID-19 are most infectious during the first five days after testing positive, recommending isolation during that time even if asymptomatic. After day five, those feeling better and are fever-free may end isolation, the agency said.

The CDC recommended those who test positive wear a high-quality mask through day 10, regardless of their symptoms. People who experience shortness of breath or difficulty breathing while they have COVID-19 should isolate for the full 10 days, as should individuals with weakened immune systems.

And the agency warned those whose symptoms worsen after day 10 should restart isolation at day zero.

Despite the new guidance, the pandemic is hardly over: An average of roughly 6,200 Americans are hospitalized every day with the virus, 395 Americans die per day, and more than 107,000 test positive for COVID-19 daily. By comparison, COVID-19 hospitalizations were as low as 2,300 cases a day in May and 5,000 cases per day beginning in July. Public health experts have repeatedly said they anticipate the infection rate to increase in the fall and winter.

Still, many Americans have made it clear they’re done with COVID-19 mitigation practices. Less than half of Americans ages 18 and up have received their first booster shot, and only 32 percent of people ages 50 and up have received their second COVID-19 booster shot, according to CDC data.

These new guidelines, meant to streamline COVID-19 protocol, came the same day that the Food and Drug Administration recognized that at-home COVID-19 rapid tests are not always effective and made the home testing guidelines a bit more complex.

The FDA now recommends Americans keep multiple at-home COVID-19 tests on hand and repeat testing following a negative home COVID-19 test, regardless of whether they have COVID-19 symptoms. At-home antigen tests are not as reliable as PCR tests and often do not detect the virus early on in an infection.

The FDA is studying COVID-19 antigen tests and looking to make them more effective.

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