The lead headline in today’s Washington Post (paper edition) reads “Societal function drove CDC’s call to cut isolation time.” The headline to the internet version of the story is even more explicit: “New CDC guidelines were spurred by worries omicron surge could lead to breakdown in essential services.”
The recommended isolation time no longer is ten days. It is now five. Based on comments by a “senior official,” the Post reports that the reduction “was driven largely by the concern that essential services might be hobbled amid one of the worst infection surges of the pandemic.”
Administration health officials “worried the sheer volume of infections could mean that tens of thousands of police, firefighters, grocery workers and other essential workers would be out of work, making it challenging to keep society functioning, even though many of the infections would be mild or produce no symptoms.”
In other words, officials balanced the health benefits of a ten-day quarantine against its societal costs (or at least some of them), taking into account that the new covid variant isn’t all that dangerous.
This shouldn’t be front-page news. It should be (and should have been) standard policymaking practice.
The Post notes that the administration’s decision, a no-brainer as I see it, is being criticized by some public health experts and union leaders. They say it is based more on economic, than on health, considerations.
No. It’s based on a balancing of the two sets of concerns. There’s no other rational way to approach the issue.
Even from a purely health point of view, the reduction in isolation time shouldn’t be that disturbing. As noted, the new variant isn’t anywhere near as threatening as its predecessors. In addition, people are most infectious in the one to two days before they develop symptoms and the two to three days thereafter. And most people don’t get tested until they start to develop symptoms.
Therefore, the risk of transmission is greatly reduced by the time five days have elapsed from a positive test. To be sure, the risk isn’t zero. Thus, if health (i.e. concern about the direct health effects of the virus) were the only consideration, isolation for ten days, and possibly more, would be the way to go. However, it would be irrational to make this the only consideration.
Rochelle Walensky cited another consideration that may have factored into the thinking behind the change in isolation policy. She said the public won’t tolerate 10 days of isolation at this stage of the pandemic.
I think that’s true, and that “the public” is right. However, if this had been a significant consideration, I doubt the administration would have changed its isolation policy. Many people would have adhered to the ten-day isolation period, even as the public at large began to disregard it.
The policy changed because the administration doesn’t want workers to be out of commission that long just because they tested positive to a virus that isn’t all that threatening. It understands that ten-day absences from work, and not just among “essential workers,” are bad for the country.
The administration is right. Its revision offers hope that 2022 will be the year in which we learn more rationally to live with covid.