Updated Dec 22, 2021 - Health

Rethinking the COVID isolation period

Illustration of a family isolated under glass.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Health care experts believe the CDC needs to shorten its guidance for a 10-day isolation period for fully vaccinated people who test positive for COVID-19 — or else hospitals will face even more severe shortages of staff as the Omicron variant takes hold.

The bottom line: "Mandatory 10-day isolation is going to make things really difficult for essential services," tweeted Aaron Carroll, chief health officer at Indiana University.

Driving the news: The CDC considered shortening the isolation period earlier this month, according to the New York Times, but no change has occurred yet. The CDC did not respond to questions by deadline.

  • Given the quick spread of the Omicron variant and the presumably shorter length of infectiousness for vaccinated people, several health care experts believe isolation doesn't need to surpass five days — especially if vaccinated people are returning multiple negative rapid tests.

The big picture: This is especially important for hospitals, which are already short-staffed and can't afford to have large swaths of providers sitting out.

  • "If it turns out that every doctor and nurse who tests positive needs to stay away for 10 days, we could be emptied of health care providers pretty quickly," said Bob Wachter, chairman of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Medicine.

Context: Roughly 70% of health care workers were fully vaccinated as of September.

  • Vaccinated health care workers who get infected with COVID-19 "rarely transmitted to coworkers or patients," according to a retrospective study of four California hospitals during a Delta wave.

In the meantime: Keeping workers infection-free means hospitals have to double down on high-quality masks and other personal protective equipment, which are in better supply now compared with the beginning of the pandemic.

  • "We know that PPE works," said Galit Alter, an infectious disease researcher at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard. "Hospitals were incredible in limiting infections" with PPE, and they need to continue to emphasize it, Alter said.

Tina Reed contributed reporting to this story.

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