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The CDC relaxes some of its COVID-19 isolation guidelines

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explain a shorter isolation period just as omicron cases continue to climb? The daily case count shot past 200,000 this week. That is the most since January. And officials believe it is an undercount. The health agency has faced a lot of criticism for a carefully worded recommendation in the midst of that news. Under the new CDC guidance, if you test positive for coronavirus but you don't have any symptoms, you can leave isolation after five days. The old rules said 10 days. The change comes just as cities and states are restoring other COVID restrictions to deal with a winter surge. We're going to talk about how this affects essential employees like flight attendants and nurses in a moment. We begin with NPR's Allison Aubrey, who joins us once again. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So the head of the agency was on NPR to justify this new policy. What did she say?

AUBREY: Yeah. Rochelle Walensky points to new data showing that the incubation period of omicron is shorter, just three days. There's also evidence to show that most people are most infectious in the first few days of an infection. And on All Things Considered last night, she told our colleague Ari Shapiro that there are practical implications of asking people to stay home longer than they need to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We also want to make sure that we can keep the critical functions of society open and operating. We started to see challenges with that, you know, with airline flights and other areas. We started first with doing the health care workers last week to make sure that we could keep our hospitals functioning safely and open.

AUBREY: Her main point, Steve, is with so many cases now, it's hard to justify 10 days of isolation if people are not as infectious.

INSKEEP: I want to underline a couple of things that I think I heard there. Is she saying, in effect, that so many people are getting sick or going to get sick or at least infected that there's no way to let them all take 10 days off? This is, in some sense, a business decision.

AUBREY: Well, that's the point that she's making. It's a business decision. It's also science, she says.

INSKEEP: Well, she specifically mentioned airlines there, as well. I noticed that a lot of critics observed that the Delta CEO asked the CDC to cut the isolation time from 10 to five days, and they did exactly that. Is she, in fact, confirming that is part of the reason?

AUBREY: You know, I think she's saying that there are real-world implications, including keeping industries open. But again, she reiterated the decision is backed by the latest science.

INSKEEP: And, of course, she mentioned that that infectious period is more like three days and not really 10 days, which is why they would cut it down from 10 days.

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: Some critics have said so - that they could have strengthened this policy, even if it is just five days of isolation. What could they have done?

AUBREY: You know, a lot of the infectious disease experts I talked to, Steve, say the best way to do this is to recommend or require that people do an over-the-counter test on day five before they come out of isolation. I spoke to Dr. Aaron Carroll of Indiana University about this.

AARON CARROLL: I don't think the Biden administration has moved fast enough or far enough to make antigen tests widely available to people and to make them economically available to everyone.

AUBREY: You know, the administration has made it clear that it's a priority to ramp up production and distribution, and they've been saying this for a while. So I think the pressure is really on to deliver now.

INSKEEP: One other thing to ask about, Allison - is it better understood how serious the omicron variant is in most cases? Is it a milder strain?

AUBREY: You know, I think that's still a bit of an open question. I think we can look at data from other countries, including the U.K. and Denmark and what's beginning to be seen here in the U.S., where there's more and more evidence that it does appear to be less virulent, less likely to cause severe illness, particularly in people who are vaccinated. With unvaccinated people, we've seen time and time again they're hit harder by COVID. And certainly, there are people hospitalized right now with omicron.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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