The U.S. Centers for Disease Control is the nation’s top public health agency. Yesterday, the CDC relaxed its COVID-19 guidelines by dropping certain recommendations, saying Americans no longer need to quarantine themselves or keep their distance from others after close contact with an infected person.
Officials say that more than 2 ½ years after the start of the pandemic, about 95% of Americans 16 and older have some level of immunity, from being either vaccinated or infected. The virus still exists, and new infections continue in the population.
However, “the current conditions of this pandemic are very different from those of the last two years,” says the CDC’s Greta Massetti, an author of the guidelines.
Masks continue to be recommended only in areas where community transmission is deemed high or if a person is considered at high risk of severe illness. This includes the elderly and those with compromised immune systems or other serious health conditions.
Many places around the country long ago abandoned social distancing and other once-common precautions. But some of yesterday’s changes could be important for schools, which resume classes this month in many parts of the country.
Even before the latest guidance, school districts across the country had scaled back COVID-19 precautions. Some have even promised a return to pre-pandemic schooling. For example, masks will be optional in most districts when classes resume. Some of the nation’s largest districts have dialed back or entirely eliminated testing requirements.
Public schools in Los Angeles are ending weekly COVID-19 tests, the district announced last week. Schools in North Carolina’s Wake County have also dropped weekly testing.
The new recommendations make keeping children in school a priority, says Joseph Allen, director of Harvard University’s healthy building program. He says previous isolation policies forced millions of students to stay home from school, even though the virus poses a relatively low risk to young people.
“Entire classrooms of kids had to miss school if they were deemed a close contact,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says. “The closed schools and learning disruption have been devastating.”
Others contend the CDC is going too far in relaxing its guidelines.
Allowing students to return to school five days after infection, without proof of a negative COVID-19 test, could lead to outbreaks, says Anne Sosin, a public health researcher. That could force entire schools to close temporarily if teachers get sick in large numbers—a dilemma that some schools faced last year.
“All of us want a stable school year, but wishful thinking is not the strategy for getting there,” Sosin asserts.
The CDC previously said people not up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations should stay home for at least five days after close contact with a person testing positive. Now the agency says quarantining at home isn’t necessary. However, it does urge those people to wear a high-quality mask for 10 days and get tested after five.
The agency continues to advise that people who test positive should isolate from others for at least five days, regardless of vaccination status.
Also on Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration updated its recommendations for how many times people exposed to COVID-19 should test. Previously, the FDA advised taking two rapid antigen tests over two or three days to rule out infection.
Now the agency recommends three tests. The change is based on new studies that suggest the old protocol can miss too many infections—and result in spreading the virus, especially if they don’t develop symptoms.
“After two years of uncertainty and disruption,” says educator Weingarten of the changes, “we need as normal a year as possible so we can focus like a laser on what kids need.”
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. — Isaiah 40:8, 1 Peter 1:24-25
(A sign asks those getting vaccinated to keep six feet apart during the vaccination event in January 2021 at Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley, California. Elias Funez/The Union via AP)