Why the CDC is loosening some of its COVID-19 guidelines

As students and teachers across the U.S. prepare to head back to school, the CDC is relaxing its COVID-19 guidelines. It marks a significant shift in how the nation approaches the pandemic as the new guidance prioritizes keeping kids in class. But some health experts worry the agency has gone too far. Julia Raifman, who leads the COVID-19 U.S. State Policy Database, joins Stephanie Sy to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As students and teachers across the country prepare to head back to school, the CDC is relaxing its COVID-19 guidelines.

    It's a significant shift in how the United States has approached the pandemic.

    Stephanie Sy explains.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, the latest guidance from the CDC prioritizes keeping kids in class and relaxes COVID prevention measures for people of all ages.

    Here's some of what's changed. If exposed to COVID-19, it's no longer necessary to quarantine. The CDC now says to wear a mask and get tested. If you test positive, the CDC recommends masking for 10 days, but says isolation can end after day five if symptoms are improving. What's more, the CDC also no longer recommends routine testing in K-12 schools, unless community transmission is high.

    Not all health experts agree with the new CDC guidelines.

    For more, I'm joined by Julia Raifman. She's an assistant professor at Boston University School of Public Health. She also leads the COVID-19 U.S. State Policy Database, which tracks how states have responded to the pandemic.

    Julia Raifman, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

    The CDC has pointed to falling case numbers and hospitalizations, as well as to the fact that a lot of Americans now have some protection from COVID, either from the vaccine or having already gotten it. Do these new CDC guidelines get it mostly right or mostly wrong, in your view?

    Julia Raifman, Boston University School of Public Health: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

    So, I think we should be looking to the CDC to set a high bar on evidence-based standards and standards that are equitable and inclusive. So, I think these guidelines could really be strengthened. We need leadership on helping people improve the use of all of the tools that we have to reduce COVID-19.

    What I would like to see is more of an emphasis on vaccine delivery at schools. Just about half of children are vaccinated at this point. So, we really need increased vaccination coverage to help reduce preventable severe disease in kids.

    We also see that vaccines alone are not enough to reduce high transmission. And schools are places we really value. They're crowded indoor settings, where we require students to go. And we want them to be safe for students, especially when there are surges.

    So what we really want to see more of is more preparedness to reduce the harms of surges, which will hit schools first and most because they are crowded indoor settings. What that would look like would be mask mandates that turn on at the beginning of a surge. What that would look like would also be increasing that vaccination coverage and booster coverage before the surge hits, and then increases in testing and supplies, as well as remote options for people who are high-risk, when there is very high transmission.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Some health experts say the new guidelines recognize that the best place for children is in the classroom, and that this can be done safely with acceptable levels of risk.

    Would you agree with that?

  • Julia Raifman:

    You know, I think it is important to keep schools open and safe.

    So, we really want to have them be healthy places that leads students in caring about their own health and that of one another and their families and their teachers. And so we see that safety guidelines, like mask mandates, have actually been a great help in helping students stay in school and reducing student and teacher absences.

    And so having a plan in place to acknowledge that the pandemic and its harms continue, but that we can mitigate them with sensible strategies that are not all or nothing, but that really respond to big surges and prepare for them, can really help students stay in school in a way that has a lot less transmission than the prior year.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And there still are about, on average, 500 people dying a day of COVID-19 in the United States.

    Which groups continue to be the most vulnerable? And we're not just talking about children here. They tend to be less vulnerable to severe disease.

  • Julia Raifman:

    Yes, thank you for asking that question.

    Yes, 500 deaths a day is a lot of deaths. At one point, the federal government had talked about setting a goal about 200 deaths a day. And we expect that number of deaths per day to increase during the school year, as people go back into crowded indoor settings, as there may be seasonal surges or surges of new variants.

    So, I think that number is too high a level to accept. And we see that there are large disparities by race, ethnicity, by income, and that people who are at high risk of severe COVID, people who are disabled are at elevated risk of death and other severe outcomes due to COVID.

    And so that's why it is important to take mitigation steps, like implementing mask mandate, at the beginning of surges to reduce the amount that COVID spreads. And reducing cases also reduces hospitalizations and deaths. It also reduces disruption to education and parents who are missing work because they are staying home with kids who are sick or because they themselves become sick.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Overall, do you feel that these new CDC guidelines are science-based? Or do you think that there are other factors at play that have changed the guidance?

  • Julia Raifman:

    You know, I think we have to recognize that public health is political and that both science and politics are reflected in these guidelines.

    And politics are part of the reason that the United States has not had a stronger response to COVID. The United States is number one in the death rate for Delta and Omicron, relative to other high-income countries. So that really suggests that we need to do better.

    What is in the guidelines is an opportunity for students — for schools and leaders to lead on better. We need layered mitigation. We need much better vaccination coverage for kids and for educators and for families. We also need mask mandates in surges and surveillance testing in surges.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Julia Raifman with Boston University School of Public Health, thank you for joining the "NewsHour" with your perspective.

  • Julia Raifman:

    Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure to be here.

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