As the United States cuts isolation time for asymptomatic COVID cases in half, scientists fear business will be put above health.
The U.S. Department of Health’s decision to reduce isolation time for people with asymptomatic COVID-19 has raised concerns among scientists, who say the decision will increase the spread of the coronavirus and overload hospitals.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people with asymptomatic COVID-19 only need to be isolated for five days and don’t need a negative PCR or rapid antigen test. The five days of isolation must be followed by five days of wearing a mask around another.
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The same rule would apply to people whose symptoms had subsided after five days in isolation.
The decision comes out of fear of staff shortages in industries such as healthcare and tourism. The US has also faced a shortage of rapid antigen tests in recent weeks.
The CDC says the recommendation is motivated by scientific data showing that the majority of SARS-COV-2 transmissions usually occur one to two days before symptoms appear and two to three days after.
Scientists want to see data
The data that the CDC used in its recommendations has not been made public.
A study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in August found that the transmission potential was highest two days before and three days after symptoms appeared. However, the virus can still be transmitted after three days.
“The original quarantine times are set based on our scientific knowledge of how long we can detect live viruses – in other words, that the person could potentially infect others,” says Emma Hodcroft, molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland. said the DW.
Zoe Hyde, an epidemiologist at the University of Western Australia, tells DW that shortening the isolation time makes sense because people are most contagious in the first few days, but only if the test is negative.
“I think it is a very bad idea to remove the need for a negative test as it will result in a lot of people spreading the virus in the community,” said Hyde.
“It also sends the wrong message about how serious the virus is. It may not matter much to the asymptomatic person allowed out of quarantine, but it could be devastating to vulnerable people in the community they come into contact with be “she added.
Economy before health?
Scientists fear the decision to cut isolation times in half for asymptomatic and rapidly recovering patients will not be driven by public health concerns.
“It’s certainly not a public health directive – it’s more about [needing] so that we can keep going as long as possible, so more of an economic guideline, “says Tobias Kurth, Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology at the Berlin Charite.
“In some areas it may be necessary to be able to relax the rule somewhat, but not as a general recommendation,” said Kurth.
Hyde confirmed Kurth’s concern: “I worry that politics is driving this decision, not science.”
Hodcroft said the real solution to the workforce shortage is to reduce the number of cases.
“By leaving those who might still be contagious back into a work environment, you can enable transmission, infect more people, and potentially perpetuate the problem,” said Hodcroft.
Pressure on hospitals
Another concern is how hospitals will deal if infection rates rise even higher because asymptomatic people are not isolated long enough and negative testing is not required.
Kurth warned that in countries fueled by omicrons – like the UK, France, the US and Germany – the large number of cases will lead to health systems collapsing.
“It really seems like a terrible time easing the restrictions with the Omicron variant spreading so quickly. I can’t see how the hospital system will handle it,” said Hyde.
The CDC’s decision comes as other countries begin to discuss changing isolation rules for people with different levels of vaccination.
Germany is currently considering changing the isolation rules for people who have had contact with an infected person when they have no symptoms.
However, unlike the U.S. recommendations for asymptomatic cases, a negative COVID-19 test would still be required.
Edited by: Fabian Schmidt