News from the FDA/CDC

COVID-19–positive or exposed? What to do next


With new cases of COVID-19 skyrocketing to more than 240,000 a day recently in the U.S., many people are facing the same situation: A family member or friend tests positive or was exposed to someone who did, and the holiday gathering, visit, or return to work is just days or hours away. Now what?

New guidance issued Dec. 27 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortens the recommended isolation and quarantine period for the general population, coming after the agency shortened the isolation period for health care workers.

This news organization reached out to two infectious disease specialists to get answers to questions that are frequently asked in these situations.

If you have tested positive for COVID-19, what do you do next?

“If you have tested positive, you are infected. At the moment, you are [either] symptomatically affected or presymptomatically infected,’’ said Paul A. Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center and professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. At that point, you need to isolate for 5 days, according to the new CDC guidance. (That period has been shortened from 10 days.)

Isolation means separating the infected person from others. Quarantine refers to things you should do if you’re exposed to the virus or you have a close contact infected with COVID-19.

Under the new CDC guidelines, after the 5-day isolation, if the infected person then has no symptoms, he or she can leave isolation and then wear a mask for 5 days.

Those who test positive also need to tell their close contacts they are positive, said Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

According to the CDC, the change to a shortened quarantine time is motivated by science ‘’demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of the illness, generally in the 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and the 2-3 days after.”

If you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, what do you do next?

“If they are vaccinated and boosted, the guidance says there is no need to quarantine,” Dr. Adalja said. But the CDC guidance does recommend these people wear a well-fitting mask at all times when around others for 10 days after exposure.

For everyone else, including the unvaccinated and those who are more than 6 months out from their second Pfizer or Moderna vaccine dose, or more than 2 months from their J&J dose, the CDC recommends a quarantine for 5 days – and wearing a mask for the 5 days after that.

On a practical level, Dr. Adalja said he thinks those who are vaccinated but not boosted could also skip the quarantine and wear a mask for 10 days. Dr. Offit agrees. Because many people exposed have trouble quarantining, Dr. Offit advises those exposed who can’t follow that guidance to be sure to wear a mask for 10 days when indoors. The CDC guidance also offers that as another strategy – that if a 5-day quarantine is not feasible, the exposed person should wear a mask for 10 days when around others.

But if someone who was exposed gets symptoms, that person then enters the infected category and follows that guidance, Dr. Offit said.


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