Decoding the CDC’s New Isolation and Quarantine Guidelines

If the CDC’s latest guideline updates have your head spinning, you’re not alone. Between information on the Omicron variant and the new changes to isolation and quarantine recommendations, many Americans are not only asking for clarity on the “what,” but also asking a resounding, “why?” We break down the key info to know to keep yourself and your loved ones safe as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

First things first: what’s the difference between isolation and quarantine? Isolation means you separate from everyone, including household members, after you get a positive COVID-19 test. You quarantine, or stay at home and away from others, following exposure to COVID-19 (i.e. you came in close contact with someone who tested positive). Here are the latest guidelines for both situations:

  • If you test positive for COVID-19:
    • Isolate at home for 5 days
    • If after 5-day isolation period you have no symptoms or your symptoms are resolving, specifically no fever for 24 hours, you can leave your home
    • You must wear mask in public, indoors and out, for 5 days after your isolation period
  • If you are exposed to COVID-19 and are
    • Vaccinated and boosted
    • Fully vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna in the last 6 months
    • Fully vaccinated with J&J BioNTech in the last 2 months
      • You must wear a mask, N95 strongly preferred, for 10 days after exposure when outside of the home
  • Unvaccinated or Vaccinated and NOT Boosted (6 months out of getting the Pfizer or Moderna 2-dose series, or 2 months out of receiving the single dose J&J BioNTech vaccination)
    • Quarantine at home for 5 days
    • Test on day 5 if possible
    • You must wear mask, N95 strongly preferred, when outside of home, indoors and out, for 5 days post 5-day quarantine period
    • IF QUARANTINE IS NOT POSSIBLE it is imperative to wear well-fitting mask, N95 strongly preferred, for 10 days post-exposure, indoors and out, when outside of home

Many, especially those who did the originally-recommended 10 or 14-day isolation periods, are asking why the CDC has made these updates, and why now. Here’s the deal: data on COVID-19, and its multiple strains, is constantly being collected and analyzed globally. The latest data shows that the majority of COVID-19 transmissions occur 1-2 prior to the onset of symptoms and 2-3 days after. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, transmission after this 5-day period falls dramatically.

According to the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, “The Omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society. CDC’s updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine balance what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses. These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives. Prevention is our best option: get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial and high community transmission, and take a test before you gather.”

In public health and the medical sciences, change is good! It initially can provoke fear and anxiety, and it is okay to ask questions, but just know that there is data behind every decision made, and the US government and Cancer Sherpa is happy to share it with you.