U.S. health officials on Monday lowered isolation restrictions for Americans who catch the coronavirus from 10 days to five days, and also shortened the time it takes to quarantine close contacts.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the guidelines are in line with growing evidence that people with the coronavirus are most contagious in the two days before and three days after symptoms appear.

The move was also prompted by a recent increase in Covid-19 cases, propelled by the omicron variant.

Early research suggests that omicron may cause milder disease than earlier versions of the coronavirus. But the large number of people infected – and therefore having to self-isolate or quarantine – threatens to crush the ability of hospitals, airlines and other businesses to stay open, experts say.

CDC director Rochelle Walensky said the country was on the verge of seeing numerous cases of omicron.

“Not all of these cases will be serious. In fact, many will be asymptomatic,” she told The Associated Press on Monday. “We want to make sure that there is a mechanism by which we can continue to operate society safely, while following the science.”

Last week, the agency relaxed rules that previously required healthcare workers not to work for 10 days if they test positive. The new recommendations said workers could return to work after seven days if they tested negative and had no symptoms. And the agency said the isolation time could be reduced to five days, or even less, in the event of a severe staff shortage.

Now the CDC is changing the isolation and quarantine guidelines for the general public to be even less stringent.

The change is for people who do not have symptoms. People who show symptoms during isolation or who develop symptoms during quarantine are encouraged to stay at home.

The CDC’s guidelines on isolation and quarantine have confused the public, and the new recommendations “come at a time when more and more people are testing positive for the first time and seeking advice,” said Lindsay Wiley , expert in public health law from the American University.

Nonetheless, guidance continues to be complex.

Isolation

The isolation rules apply to infected people. They are the same for unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, fully vaccinated or boosted people.

They say:

– The clock starts on the day you test positive.

– An infected person should be isolated for five days, instead of the 10 previously recommended.

– After five days, if you have no symptoms, you can resume your normal activities but must wear a mask everywhere – even in your homes and around others – for at least five more days.

– If you are still showing symptoms after five days of isolation, stay home until you feel better, then start your five days of mask wear anytime.

Quarantine

Quarantine rules apply to people who have been in close contact with an infected person but who have not been infected themselves.

For quarantine, the clock starts on the day a person is alerted that they may have been exposed to the virus.

Previously, the CDC had said that people who were not fully vaccinated and had close contact with an infected person were required to stay home for at least 10 days.

Now, the agency says only people who have received booster shots can skip quarantine if they wear masks in all settings for at least 10 days.

It’s a change. Previously, fully vaccinated people – whom the CDC defined as having two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine – could be exempt from quarantine.

Now, people who received their initial injections but not the boosters are in the same situation as those who are partially vaccinated or not vaccinated at all: they can stop quarantine after five days if they wear masks in all settings. for five days after.

Five days

Suspending solitary confinement and quarantine after five days is not without risk.

Many people get tested when they first experience symptoms, but many Americans get tested for other reasons, such as to see if they can visit family or for work. This means that a positive test result may not reveal exactly when a person was infected or give a clear picture of when they are most contagious, experts say.

When people are infected, the risk of spreading drops dramatically after five days, but it doesn’t go away for everyone, said Dr Aaron Glatt, a New York City physician spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“If you reduce it to five days, you will still have a small but significant number of contagious people,” he said.

That’s why wearing masks is a critical part of the CDC’s guidelines, Walensky said.

Variable recommendations

The new direction of the CDC is not a mandate; it is a recommendation to employers and national and local officials. Last week, New York state said it would extend the CDC’s guidelines to healthcare workers to include employees who work in other critical jobs and face a serious staff shortage.

It is possible that other states are looking to shorten their isolation and quarantine policies, and the CDC is trying to get ahead of the change. “It would help to have uniform CDC guidelines” that others could learn from, rather than a mishmash of policies, Walensky said.

As the number of cases increases, the update “is going to be seen as a response to pressure from business interests,” Wiley said. But some experts have been calling for change for months, as shorter isolation and quarantine periods seemed to be enough to slow the spread, she said.

The CDC’s decision follows a decision taken last week by British officials to reduce the period of self-isolation for those vaccinated who test positive for Covid-19.