ACROSS AMERICA — Federal health officials on Monday shortened by half the number of days people infected with COVID-19 from the omicron coronavirus variant should isolate, a decision they said was backed by research showing how the virus is adapting.
Still, the timing is ideal for the updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people infected with COVID-19, but are asymptomatic, should isolate for five instead of 10 days, then wear a mask for another five days.
It comes as airlines canceled thousands of holiday flights they were unable to staff as the coronavirus omicron variant sends COVID-19 infections soaring to levels not seen since last winter.
Airlines have said the staffing shortages were mainly due to workers who are isolating for 10 days after testing positive for COVID-19. Other industries struggling to keep their businesses staffed also have pushed the CDC to shorten its quarantine and isolation time recommendations.
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The CDC said its updated isolation/quarantine guidance reflects a growing body of research showing the majority of omicron variant coronavirus infections occur in the first day or two before the onset of symptoms and for two or three days after.
“These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. “The omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society. CDC’s updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine balance what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses.”
If a five-day quarantine isn’t feasible for someone who has been exposed to the coronavirus, “it is imperative that an exposed person wear a well-fitting mask at all times when around others for 10 days after exposure,” the CDC said.
The agency added that people who have received their vaccinations, but not their booster shots, do not need to quarantine following an exposure but should wear a properly fitting mask for the next 10 days.
The best practice for all people exposed to the virus is a COVID-19 test five days after the date of exposure. People who show symptoms should immediately isolate until a negative test confirms the symptoms aren’t attributable to COVID-19.
The new guidance was welcomed by airlines, which had called on the Biden administration to shorten quarantine/isolation times to help ease staffing issues caused by omicron. But the union representing flight attendants criticized shortening the isolation period, calling it the “wrong move.”
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told CNBC last week a decision like this “may put flight attendants in a position to be forced to come back before they feel better.”
Some public health officials pushed back as well, including Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency room doctor in Rhode Island.
Ranney, who has provided expert commentary on the coronavirus to national news networks, said in a lengthy Twitter thread that the shortened quarantine period is “great for schools work and play,” but said a far better approach would be to require a negative COVID-19 rapid test to end quarantine.
Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, called the update CDC guidance “reckless.”
“I absolutely don’t want to sit next to someone who turned Positive 5 days ago and hasn’t tested [negative],” he tweeted.
However, others said the changes reflect a landscape permanently changed by the coronavirus.
“The new guidance reflects a growing reality that we’re going to have to learn to live with covid as a persistent risk, and can’t let it shut down society,” Scott Gottlieb, a Pfizer board member and former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, told The Washington Post.