If there is any chance you may have come in contact with someone who has the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has strongly recommended that you self-quarantine for 14 days to avoid potentially exposing anyone else to the virus. While difficult to enforce, this has been among the CDC’s most stringent guidelines — but this morning, the agency announced it is relaxing its approach.
While the agency still touts a 14-day quarantine period as the safest option, during a news briefing on Wednesday, Dr. Henry Walke, who oversees the CDC’s pandemic response, outlined two alternatives: If you never experience COVID-19 symptoms, you can end your quarantine after ten days — and, in some cases, you can even end your quarantine after just seven days, so long as you test negative for coronavirus at the end of the seven-day period.
The CDC has been considering shortening quarantine periods for quite some time. In late October, CDC director Robert Redfield relayed during a briefing that the agency was rethinking the 14-day quarantine period, noting that it was conceived before diagnostic testing was widely available. The alternatives also reflect our shifting understanding of the virus’s incubation period: While it can take up to two weeks for someone to become infected with COVID following exposure, “the biggest risk is from days four to seven,” former CDC director Tom Frieden recently told NBC News. The median incubation period, studies have found, is five days.
At a time when coronavirus cases continue to rise drastically across the country, with hospitals nationwide approaching capacity, cutting the quarantine period could seem imprudent; given the new recommended time period is shorter than the virus’s full incubation period, some infections may be missed. However, many public-health experts believe that a shorter quarantine period will improve overall compliance.
“Reducing the length of quarantine may make it easier to take this critical public-health action by reducing the economic hardship associated with a longer period, especially if they cannot work during that time,” Walke said. “In addition, a shorter quarantine period can lessen stress on the public-health system and community, especially when new infections are rapidly rising.”