Coronavirus Update: Changing isolation times for people with COVID-19 is ‘under serious consideration’ in the U.S. as cases surge

United States

There is growing support for shortening isolation times for people who have tested positive for the virus as COVID-19 case counts surge across the U.S.

The current rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say someone with symptoms should stay home for 10 days starting from the first day of symptoms. Individuals who are asymptomatic should isolate for 10 days, starting from the day they test positive.

But much has changed since this policy went into place in December of last year.

The nature of the omicron variant, which is now the most dominant strain of the virus in the U.S., is different than other SARS-CoV-2 variants. It’s thought to be more infectious, have a shorter incubation period, and is more easily able to infect vaccinated people. It may also cause less severe disease although that is still unclear.

Plus, about 61% of eligible people in the U.S. are now fully vaccinated, including the 31.5% of the U.S. population who have received a booster shot. 

“More and more evidence shows that we clear the virus faster if we are vaccinated and that five days plus a negative rapid [test] should make people feel comfortable leaving isolation,” Rachael Piltch-Loeb, an associate research scientist at NYU School of Global Public Health and a preparedness fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told MarketWatch last week.

The CDC made one change to its isolation policy on Dec. 24 but it only affects health care workers. The public-health agency reduced the isolation period down to seven days, as long as someone tests negative, though it said that the timeline “can be cut further if there are staffing shortages.” 

Some governments are taking a more aggressive approach to reducing isolation times. New York state said last week that some essential workers who are fully vaccinated only need to isolate for five days, while the United Kingdom on Dec. 22 shortened the isolation period to seven days if someone can get two negative tests. 

“The idea about cutting down the period of quarantine for people who’ve been exposed, and perhaps the period of isolation for people who have been infected, is something that is under, I would say, serious consideration,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor, told CNN on Monday. 

Airlines, which have had to cancel thousands of flights over the last few days due in part to staff shortages because of the virus, last week began urging the CDC to shorten the isolation window for fully vaccinated individuals.

“As with healthcare, police, fire and public transportation workforces, the omicron surge may exacerbate personnel shortages and create significant disruptions to our workforce and operations,” Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of the industry group Airlines for America, wrote in a Dec. 23 letter to the CDC.

Here’s what the numbers say

The number of new COVID-19 cases continues rising at an exponential pace, with record cases being reported in several states including Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York over the holiday weekend. 

New York City reported about 55,000 cases on Dec. 26, which is more than triple the number of confirmed cases reported just three days before. (This is considered the highest number of cases reported in New York City since the start of the pandemic, though widespread testing was not available during the earliest months of the pandemic, when the city had a surge in cases.) 

The U.S. reported 189,714 new cases on Dec. 26, according to the New York Times tracker; that figure is lower than it should be given the likely slowdown in the number of COVID-19 tests performed on Christmas Day. The daily average is 214,299 cases per day, the highest figure since Jan. 17.  

The last available data for COVID-19 hospitalizations was on Dec. 24, when there were 71,786 people in the U.S. who were hospitalized with COVID-19 infections. The daily average is 70,497 hospitalizations. 

In the rest of the world, France reported more than 100,000 cases in a single day for the first time. Italy and the U.K. are also reporting record cases.