CDC removes recommendation to isolate for five days after positive COVID-19 test

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this Friday eliminated the recommendation of five days of isolation for people who test positive for coronavirus.

The new CDC guidelines align with public health advice for the flu and other respiratory illnesses: stay home when you are sick, but return to school or work when you feel better and are fever-free for 24 hours.

A passenger wearing a face mask on a train in Washington, DC on January 4, 2024.Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images file

This change reflects the sustained decline in the most severe cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, as well as the implicit recognition that many people do not even get tested despite having symptoms.

“People often don’t know what virus they have when they first get sick, so this will help them know what to do in any case,” Mandy Cohen, director of the CDC, said at a press conference on Friday.

Over the past two years, weekly hospital admissions for COVID-19 have dropped by more than 75%, and deaths have dropped by more than 90%, Cohen added.

“To put it another way, in 2021, COVID-19 was the third cause of death in the United States. Last year, it was the tenth,” Dr. Brendan Jackson, chief of respiratory virus response at CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during the briefing.

Many doctors have been urging the CDC for months to lift isolation guidelines, saying they have done little to stop the spread of the virus.

The experiences of California and Oregon, which previously lifted their coronavirus isolation guidelines, showed that to be true.

“Recent data indicate that California and Oregon, where isolation guidelines most closely resemble updated CDC recommendations, are not experiencing an increase in COVID-19 emergency room visits or hospitalizations,” Jackson said.

For Dr. David Margolius, public health director for the city of Cleveland, it makes sense to change isolation for COVID-19 from what is recommended for the flu and other respiratory illnesses.

(They warn of the increase in influenza and COVID-19 cases in the United States)

“We have reached a point where we are suffering from the flu at a higher rate than COVID-19,” he said. “What these guidelines will do is help reinforce that — regardless of what contagious respiratory viral infection you have — you stay home when you are sick and come back when you feel better.”

Dr. Kristin Englund, an infectious disease expert at the Cleveland Clinic, said this new approach will be beneficial in slowing the spread of all respiratory viruses. “I think this will help us in the coming years to reduce the number of cases of flu and RSV, and not just coronavirus.”

Still, the decision likely drew criticism from some doctors, who point to the fact that the United States saw 17,310 new COVID-19 hospitalizations in the last week alone.

“It’s something that will probably raise a wide range of opinions and maybe even some conflicting ones,” said Dr. Faisal Khan, Seattle’s public health director. “But (the CDC’s) reasoning is sound that the pandemic is in a very different phase now than it was in 2021 or 2022 or 2023.”

Although isolation guidelines have been lifted, the CDC continues to advise people to take precautions within five days of feeling better. That includes wearing masks around vulnerable people and opening windows to improve fresh air flow indoors.

Most of the spread of the virus occurs when people are the sickest. “As the days go by, the virus spreads less,” Cohen said.

People at higher risk of serious complications from coronavirus, such as the elderly, people with weak immune systems, and pregnant women, may need to take extra precautions.

Dr. Katie Passaretti, chief epidemiologist at Atrium Health in Charlotte, noted that it was a “movement in the positive direction.”

“We continue to study what the world will be like after COVID-19, as it is one of the many respiratory viruses that circulate safely,” he added.

(Report suggests the CDC is considering making changes to its COVID-19 isolation guidelines)

These new guidelines are only for the general public, and do not include isolation guidelines in hospital settings, where it is generally 10 days.

On Wednesday, the agency reported that adults 65 and older should receive a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine this spring. The country is expected to experience a resurgence of the disease in late summer.

The past four years have seen coronavirus surges in winter and summer, with case peaks in January and August, respectively, according to the CDC.

Another reformulated vaccine is expected to be available and recommended this fall.

Top tips from the CDC to reduce the spread of coronavirus:

  • Get vaccinated against COVID-19 whenever available. According to Cohen, 95% of people hospitalized with the virus last winter had not received the latest vaccine.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes, and wash your hands frequently.
  • Increase ventilation by opening windows, using air purifiers, and gathering outdoors when possible.