CDC shortens official COVID quarantine guidance

New federal guidelines reduce the time you need to isolate when you come down with COVID-19 – recommendations that some critics say do not go far enough to prevent others from suffering unnecessarily.

Released today, the new guidelines for respiratory viruses such as flu and RSV state that individuals who are sick should stay home and away from other people. But if someone has been fever-free and without symptoms for at least 24 hours, they don’t need to quarantine if they limit contact with others, mask up, test and avoid indoor spaces if possible for the next five days. If their symptoms rebound, the clock starts over.

“We know folks often don’t know what they have when they first get sick, so this will help them know what to do regardless,” said CDC Director Mandy Cohen during a call with journalists Friday.

Prior to these new isolation recommendations, the CDC had said people who test positive for COVID should stay home for at least five days and then isolate for at least 10 days. These new guidelines for the general population replace that guidance, Cohen said, while maintaining that recommendations for health care facilities, including nursing homes, remain unchanged.


Chart by Jenna Cohen/PBS NewsHour

The nation is “in a different place” with the COVID pandemic than it was four years ago, Cohen said, with wider access to treatments and prevention strategies. These new recommendations reflect fewer hospitalizations and deaths from respiratory illnesses, including COVID.

But epidemiologist Saskia Popescu said she was concerned that “a unified respiratory virus toolkit for community infection prevention” ran the risk of “over-simplification.” Popescu warned that COVID is a different respiratory virus compared to influenza or RSV because it is “more transmissible, carries the possibility of long COVID, but also such a high percentage of cases are asymptomatic, which inherently poses a risk for transmission.”

Among those who were hospitalized for COVID, more than 95 percent had not been vaccinated, according to the CDC, which urged people to get up to date on their vaccines. Roughly 1 in 5 eligible Americans have gotten their COVID shot this winter.

In addition to getting vaccinated, the CDC said it is still important to practice good hygiene, such as washing hands, keeping exposed surfaces clean and covering a cough or sneeze, and to ventilate indoor spaces or meet outdoors.