Speaking to CNN on Monday afternoon, Anthony Fauci, the top medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said the new guidance had been discussed for some time and called the changes “very prudent” at this current stage of the pandemic.
Like Walensky, Fauci stressed that the recommendations would help the US continue to function as the country faces an unprecedented number of COVID cases in the weeks ahead due to the highly infectious Omicron variant.
“With the sheer volume of new cases that we are having and that we expect to continue with Omicron, one of the things we want to be careful of is we don’t have so many people out,” Fauci said.
“Obviously, if you have symptoms, you should not be out,” he added, “but if you are asymptomatic and you are infected, we want to get people back to the jobs, particularly those with essential jobs to keep our society running smoothly, so I think that was a very prudent and good choice on the part of the CDC.”
The APHA’s Benjamin said these new changes were aimed at avoiding yet more harsh lockdowns. “Without this, we go back to the total closures, which nobody has the stomach for right now,” he said. “The politics for that just aren’t there.”
The changes were announced four days after the CDC said asymptomatic medical workers could return to work after seven days if they test negative. That update was made out of concern that hospitals would be hamstrung by staff shortages as the Omicron variant spreads through medical facilities.
But experts contacted by BuzzFeed News said they were confused why the same negative test requirement, even via a rapid antigen test, was not made for the general public to exit isolation.
“I think finding ways to shorten isolation time is a great idea — 10 days is very disruptive — but with testing,” said virologist Angela Rasmussen, who called the CDC’s new changes “reckless.”
“Seems the CDC is now just letting big corporations suggest policy and they are saying, ‘Let’s go with it,’” she added. “But it’s not the scientists at the CDC. It’s Walensky and her bosses in Washington who are dictating it, I think.”
Epidemiologist Michael Mina also said that it was “reckless” to allow people to leave isolation without first testing negative, noting that he would not want to sit next to someone who tested positive five days ago.
“I am 100% for getting people to drop isolation early,” Mina wrote on Twitter. “But it was always with a negative test. What the heck are we doing here?”
Business leaders have been calling for changes to the isolation time for so-called breakthrough cases (vaccinated people who contract COVID) to minimize disruptions to the economy. Last week, before several thousand flights were canceled around the world partly due to sick crew members, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian asked Walensky to reduce the isolation time to five days for vaccinated people. He said the 10-day requirement “may significantly impact [the airline’s] workforce and operations.” But, according to Reuters, Bastian also said appropriate testing could play a role.
When asked Tuesday why a negative test was not made part of the updated guidance, CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund again emphasized that most transmission occurs early in the first five days of a COVID infection. She said that for the purpose of a diagnosis, both PCR and rapid antigen tests were best used early in the course of illness. “Some people may remain positive by PCR test beyond the period of expected infectiousness,” Nordlund said. “The importance of a positive antigen test late in the course of illness is unclear and does not necessarily mean a person can easily spread the virus.”
But experts contacted by BuzzFeed News said they suspected the lack of a testing requirement was due to more practical concerns: “You can’t get tested!” Benjamin said. “It would’ve been an interesting component of it, but you can’t get tests. People are lining up for hours to get tests.”
“I don’t know who to blame, but what I can say is we need to focus a hell of a lot more on testing, and that’s something we as a nation have not done well in,” he added. “I don’t know what the holdup is.”