Jan 5, 2022 - Health

Another point of confusion over COVID guidance

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sought to clarify its COVID isolation guidance Tuesday, it managed to further muddy the waters.

The big picture: The CDC's guidance says people who have tested positive, or those who suspect they have COVID due to symptoms, should isolate for at least five days.

  • The agency faced criticism last week for not recommending a negative COVID test as a condition to end isolation.
  • The CDC still doesn't say people need to test negative to leave their isolation, but its newly updated guidance now says that anyone ending isolation who "has access to a test" and "wants to test" can do so.
  • If they test positive, they should isolate for another five days, the CDC says. But if they are symptom free after five days and haven't tested, they can also go out in the world again. Either way, they should keep wearing a mask for five more days. And they really shouldn’t travel, but still can if they wear a mask and in no circumstance is it necessary to test negative.
  • Got it?

What they're saying: "The newly updated @CDCgov isolation guidance adds to the confusional state," tweeted Eric Topol, executive vice president of Scripps Research.

  • "I'm struggling to make heads or tails of it," Megan Ranney, academic dean at the Brown University School of Public Health, told Axios.
  • "It's basically like 'get out of jail free at five days unless you happen to run into a rapid test in which case ....' It feels like a Rube Goldbergian contraption designed to confuse us all."

Flashback: It's not the first instance of problematic COVID messaging.

  • For instance, while data showed immunity was waning from COVID vaccines, it took months for the FDA and CDC to authorize them for the general public, Axios' Caitlin Owens wrote.
  • Last spring, the CDC said the vaccinated could shed their masks — only to reverse course 75 days later to say vaccinated people in hot spots should wear masks in indoor, public settings.

The other side: The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

  • It said online it did not require tests at the end of isolation because "a negative antigen test does not necessarily indicate the absence of transmissible virus." The agency recommends wearing a "well-fitting mask," with or without a test, when leaving isolation.
  • Experts acknowledge that it can be tricky to communicate with the public as science changes. They said they also recognize access to testing has also been an issue in recent weeks.

The bottom line: The advice could and should be delivered in simpler and clearer terms, experts said.

  • "I'd recommend a rapid antigen test and if it's still positive, stay home longer," Ranney said. "And if you're symptomatic, you have to stay home until you get better."
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