On Thursday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new COVID-19 guidelines that loosened restrictions like quarantining and social distancing, and instead turned the focus to reducing severe cases of COVID-19.
The agency said the decision to ease restrictions was in large part due to vaccinations and prior infections granting many Americans a level of protection that did not exist two years ago. And with boosters readily available, the risk of severe illness can be reduced.
“We know that COVID-19 is here to stay,” Greta Massetti, a C.D.C. epidemiologist, said at a news briefing on Thursday. “High levels of population immunity due to vaccination and previous infection, and the many tools that we have available to protect people from severe illness and death have put us in a different place.”
The loosened guidelines include limiting contact tracing to hospitals and high-risk group-living situations, and wearing a high-quality mask for 10 days instead of quarantining if you were exposed to COVID-19. The new guidelines will also no longer require schools and businesses to force unvaccinated individuals exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine at home.
And while the agency’s experts feel the eased restrictions are a step in the right direction, many argue that the pandemic is not over — and restrictions provide a necessary roadmap to keep the general public safe.
“The policy of not requiring exposed unvaccinated individuals to quarantine at home is an issue,” said Dr. Soumi Eachempati, co-founder and CEO of CLEARED4 and former professor of surgery and public health at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Being exposed to a single individual usually does not occur in isolation. The new policy will require unvaccinated individuals to stay in areas where likely multiple individuals have the disease. Now, without a mandatory quarantine, they are likely to become infected and further spread the disease to other unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals.”
Dr. Eachempati adds that the new policy is predicated on the assumption that previously infected or vaccinated individuals will not become infected or transmit the disease, which is flawed since people who were infected with the Omicron strain were also potentially infected with later strains like BA.5.
Experts also agree that the new guidelines shift the responsibility from institutions to the individual person. The CDC no longer recommends that people stay six feet away from each other, but rather avoid crowded areas and maintain a general distance from others to reduce their risk.
Dr. Rafid Fadul, a pulmonologist and medical advisor for Evernow said the guidelines are an overdue common sense approach to the broader issue, but remaining cautious and aware of the virus is as important as ever.
“On a practical level, this still requires good common sense from every citizen and a sense of responsibility to one another,” he said. “Wear a mask with exposures and positive cases, maintain good hygiene, and take advantage of the treatments available to us — including vaccinations and timely intervention when sick.”
And while restrictions are easing, that doesn’t mean cases are slowing down. The national average is currently just above 100,000 per day, and as students head back to school, experts agree the newly eliminated test-to-stay strategy could lead to an increase in undetected cases. The strategy focused on testing people that were exposed to COVID-19 who were not up to date on their vaccinations, and if they tested negative and showed no symptoms they were allowed to continue in-person learning.
“Most importantly, I do not like the elimination of test-to-stay in schools,” said Dr. Eachempati. “This policy likely prevented thousands of cases of Covid to students and teachers. The policy not only kept kids in school but also identified kids with asymptomatic infections who would have spread the disease to vulnerable faculty and household contacts.”
And while many guidelines have changed, the C.D.C. still recommends people wear masks indoors in places where community cases are high, and people who test positive for the virus should stay home for at least five days and isolate themselves from others.
The easing of restrictions and changing of guidelines is an inevitable component of the pandemic, but cases remain high and deaths remain around 400 per day. A number far lower than some of the worst peaks the pandemic saw, but a level that still makes COVID-19 one of the nation’s leading causes of death.
“In general, this revised policy is fundamentally flawed as infections are still over 100,000 a day,” said Dr. Eachempati. “And we just had the President take multiple tests, isolate, and take 18 days off.”
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