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CDC says 14-day quarantine best way to reduce Covid risk, but 10- and 7-day periods work in some cases

Women walk past a novel coronavirus testing site in Los Angeles, California, December 1, 2020.

Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday announced shortened alternatives to its recommended quarantine for people who were exposed to someone with Covid-19, Dr. Henry Walke, the agency’s Covid-19 incident manager, said.

It previously recommended that anyone who was exposed to Covid-19 quarantine for 14 days. Walke said the agency still recommends a 14-day quarantine “as the best way to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19.” However, he said the CDC has identified “two acceptable alternatives.”

The quarantine can end after 10 days if the person has not developed any symptoms, Walke said, adding that it can end after just seven days if the asymptomatic person also tests negative for the virus.

“We continue to refine our guidance to prevent transmission and protect Americans,” Walke said. “Reducing the length of quarantine may make it easier for people to follow critical public health action by reducing the economic hardship associated with a longer period, especially if they cannot work during that time.”

Walke added that local health officials can adjust the agency’s recommendations to fit the situations of their jurisdictions. He said regardless of the length of quarantine, people should monitor their own symptoms for a full 14 days after an exposure.

Dr. John Brooks, the chief medical officer for CDC’s Covid-19 response, said that ending quarantine after 10 days without a negative test leads to about 1% risk of spreading the virus to others, based on modeling by the CDC and outside researchers. After a 7-day quarantine with a negative test, there’s about a 5% chance of spreading the virus, he added.

The recommended quarantine applies to those deemed “close contacts” of Covid-19 patients. The CDC defines a close contact as “someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period starting from 2 days before illness onset” or positive test result.

Public health specialists have been awaiting the change with “delighted anticipation,” Dr. Bill Schaffner, an epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University, said Wednesday in a phone interview. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the CDC was considering such a change.

The original 14-day quarantine period was based on what scientists believed to be the lengthy coronavirus incubation period, during which symptoms are not yet present and it’s difficult to detect the virus. Schaffner pointed out that the 14-day recommendation “was written before testing was widely available” and researchers have since learned more about the virus.

“Several of us have thought for some time, that now that testing is available you could introduce that into the scheme of how to evaluate people who are in quarantine,” he said, adding that this will help potentially exposed people return to work more quickly.

“This is good for public health and good for the economy,” he said, “and good for people’s mental health.”

This is a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.

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