CDC Defends New COVID Guidance as Doctors Raise Concerns

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Jan. 5, 2022 – The CDC’s recently updated guidance on isolating and testing were tied to the public’s increased interest in testing, Director Rochelle Walenksy, MD, said during a White House briefing in Wednesday.

Health officials recently shortened the recommended COVID-19 isolation and quarantine period from 10 days to 5, creating confusion amid an outbreak of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which now accounts for 95% of cases in the U.S.

Then, in slightly updated guidance, the CDC recommended using an at-home antigen test after 5 days of isolation if possible, even though these tests aren’t as sensitive to the Omicron variant, according to the FDA.

“After we released our recs early last week, it became very clear people were interested in using the rapid test, though not authorized for this purpose after the end of their isolation period,” Walensky said. “We then provided guidance on how they should be used.”

“If that test is negative, people really do need to understand they must continue to wear their mask for those 5 days,” Walensky said.

But for many, the CDC guidelines remain murky and seem to always change.

“Nearly 2 years into this pandemic, with Omicron cases surging across the country, the American people should be able to count on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for timely, accurate, clear guidance to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities,” American Medical Association president Gerald Harmon, MD, said in a statement. “Instead, the new recommendations on quarantine and isolation are not only confusing, but are risking further spread of the virus.”

About 31% of people remain infectious 5 days after a positive COVID-19 test, Harmon said, quoting the CDC’s own rationale for changing its guidance.

“With hundreds of thousands of new cases daily and more than a million positive reported cases on January 3, tens of thousands – potentially hundreds of thousands of people – could return to work and school infectious if they follow the CDC’s new guidance on ending isolation after 5 days without a negative test,” he said. “Physicians are concerned that these recommendations put our patients at risk and could further overwhelm our health care system.”

Instead, Harmon said a negative test should be required for ending isolation.

“Reemerging without knowing one’s status unnecessarily risks further transmission of the virus,” he said.

Meanwhile, also during the White House briefing, officials said that early data continues to show that Omicron infections are less severe than those from other variants, but skyrocketing cases will still put a strain on the health care system.

“The big caveat is we should not be complacent,” presidential Chief Medical Adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, said.

He added that Omicron “could still stress our hospital system because a certain proportion of a large volume of cases, no matter what, are going to be severe.”

Cases continue to increase greatly. This week’s 7-day daily average of infections is 491,700 -- an increase of 98% over last week, Walensky said. Hospitalizations, while lagging behind case numbers, are still rising significantly: The daily average is 14,800 admissions, up 63% from last week. Daily deaths this week are 1,200, an increase of only 5%.

Walensky continues to encourage vaccinations, boosters, and other precautions.

“Vaccines and boosters are protecting people from the severe and tragic outcomes that can occur from COVID-19 infection,” she said. “Get vaccinated and get boosted if eligible, wear a mask, stay home when you’re sick, and take a test if you have symptoms or are looking for greater reassurance before you gather with others.”

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