Americans who test positive for COVID-19 but do not have symptoms can stop isolating after five days as long as they continue wearing masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Monday, halving the agency's previous isolation period down from 10 days.
The CDC also said it was loosening its guidance for quarantining after a COVID-19 exposure for unvaccinated Americans or those eligible for a booster who have not yet received their additional shot. It now recommends a five-day quarantine followed by five days of strict mask-wearing, but says that if quarantine "is not feasible," it can be skipped as long as they wear a mask in the 10 days after exposure. The CDC says people who are fully vaccinated and boosted to not need to quarantine after exposure.
"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," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
The change mirrors a similar move by the CDC announced last week to shorten its isolation guidance for health care workers, amid a surge of Omicron infections that has sidelined staff members in an already-strained health care system.
Many communities are now seeing record numbers of cases and rising hospitalizations fueled by the variant. Nationwide, the daily average of cases tallied by the CDC has accelerated to a pace not seen since the deadly surge of cases last winter.
Several industries have blamed the recent surge in Omicron cases for crippling much of their workforce. Thousands of flights were canceled or delayed over the holiday weekend, as pilots, flight attendants and other airline workers were forced to isolate after breakthrough cases.
In deciding to shorten the recommended isolation period, the CDC said data shows the majority of transmission "occurs early in the course of illness," within two days before symptoms begin and three days after.
Early findings from investigations of the virus abroad also suggest the course of Omicron infections progresses faster than from the Delta variant, with the average incubation period – the time from when someone is exposed to the virus until they develop symptoms – dropping to as little as three days.