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New CDC guidance on five-day isolation welcomed by some, criticized by others

The CDC's new guidelines say you can leave isolation after five days if you have COVID, as long as you don't have symptoms anymore.

MINNEAPOLIS — The CDC authorized a major shift in public health guidance this week, issuing new recommendations that allow people with COVID-19 to come out of isolation after five days rather than 10, granted they no longer have symptoms.

Citing data that people are most contagious one or two days before symptoms and up to two or three days after symptoms, the CDC says asymptomatic people who leave isolation after a five-day period should still wear a mask for another five days.

"There is a basis, scientifically, as to why they're doing what they're doing," said Dr. Louis Mansky, professor and director of the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota. "Part of what they're doing is being responsive, trying to keep some degree of normalcy this winter even though we've got a new variant."

Dr. Frank Rhame, an infectious diseases physician at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Allina Health, called the changes in guidance "dramatic." 

"I think it's based on the CDC recognition that the omicron illness is not as severe, and that it's spreading so fast that we're in real danger of industries collapsing because they don't have people to staff things," Rhame said. "I think they're accepting a few extra transmissions so that things are not shut down as much as they'd be if they keep people out 10 days."

However, some groups representing workers have pushed back against the CDC's new guidance, expressing concerns that it will pressure them to come back too quickly and thus further spread the virus. 

On Monday, for example, the president of the national flight attendant union accused the CDC of bowing to pressure from "corporate America." The CEO of Delta Airlines had pushed for the five-day quarantine, writing to the CDC that keeping a 10-day quarantine amid the Omicron variant would "significantly impact our workforce and operations."

Mary Turner, the head of the Minnesota Nurses Association and an ICU nurse at North Memorial Hospital, also told KARE 11 in an interview that she feels "disappointment, shock and concern" over the CDC's decision to limit isolation to five days if asymptomatic.

"We want to do something where we, potentially, are going to have more sick people roaming around?" Turner said. "You come back early because if you don't, you'll get fired, and now you have to get on your conscience, 'what if I infect other people? What if I infect the wrong person?'"

Turner said the CDC's new guidance will only push hospital capacity to further limits.

"We need to get out of this pandemic," Turner said, "and this is not the way to do it. No."

Dr. Rhame at Allina Health said that if you're exposed to at-risk people — like older folks or those with pre-existing conditions — you should consider isolating longer than the CDC recommendations.

"Apparently, they've got some better information that transmissions taper off after five days," Rhame said. "We do know some transmissions occur after five days, but if you're wearing a mask, they should be mitigated substantially." 

The CDC also issued new recommendations about people who are exposed to COVID-19. If you're not vaccinated or not boosted six months out, you should quarantine for five days and then wear your mask for the next five, according to the CDC. If you're fully boosted, you don't need to quarantine but should wear a mask for 10 days.

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