CDC’s isolation guidelines draw criticism from doctors, healthcare leaders and late-night comics

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to defend its new guidance, which calls for shorter isolation periods. Some say the recommendations should include a negative test.

What do the American Medical Association and Stephen Colbert have in common?

Both the AMA and the late night comic have slammed the shortened COVID-19 isolation guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With updated guidance posted this week, the CDC said most Americans who are infected can end their isolation after 5 days. (Healthcare workers have different isolation guidance.)

With the Omicron virus surging and leading to unprecedented spikes in new COVID-19 cases, some have said it’s not time for the CDC to recommend a shorter isolation period. Critics have also called for a negative test before ending isolation after 5 days.

Earlier this week, Gerald Harmon, president of the AMA, assailed the CDC’s guidance and said it could lead to infectious people returning to work or school and spreading COVID-19.

In a statement issued this week, Harmon said, “tens of thousands — potentially hundreds of thousands of people — could return to work and school infectious if they follow the CDC’s new guidance on ending isolation after five days without a negative test. Physicians are concerned that these recommendations put our patients at risk and could further overwhelm our health care system.”

“A negative test should be required for ending isolation after one tests positive for COVID-19,” Harmon said. “Reemerging without knowing one’s status unnecessarily risks further transmission of the virus.”

Many Americans have struggled to find tests in stores or have endured hours-long waits at testing sites. But Harmon said, “a dearth of tests at the moment does not justify omitting a testing requirement to exit a now shortened isolation.”

In a more humorous note, Colbert poked the CDC’s guidance. “We're 2 days from the next CDC guideline: ‘Hey, man. You do you,’” Colbert posted on Twitter.

Similarly, “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” ran a satirical spot on the CDC guidance, explaining that the recommendations relate to 5 Martian days. “They’re slightly longer than Earth days,” the spoof PSA explains.

On Friday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky appeared on NBC's "Today" and defended the agency's guidance and the suggested shortened isolation period.

“We are now standing on the shoulders of years of science that has demonstrated that if you are infected, you are most contagious in the one to two days prior to your symptoms and the two to three days after your symptoms,” she said on Today. “So we know that the vast majority of your contagiousness by day five is really behind you.”

Walensky also stressed the CDC guidance will reflect the latest science and will update its recommendations as needed.

Those with no or few symptoms and no fever can go back to work after five days, but should wear a mask around others for an additional five days, the CDC says. Previously, the CDC said those with COVID-19 should remain in isolation for 10 days.

For those who still have a fever after five days, the CDC says Americans should continue isolating until they are fever-free for at least 24 hours without medication and other symptoms have improved. Those with weaker immune systems may also need to isolate longer, the CDC says.

Some have called for the CDC to recommend a negative test before ending isolation after five days. Earlier this week, Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser for the White House, suggested the government may come up with revised guidelines and a testing option was a possibility.

Despite criticism, the CDC has stood behind its revised guidelines and isn’t calling for a negative test before ending isolation at five days.

Earlier this week, the CDC explained its reasoning for the shorter guidelines. The CDC also posted explanations on its website citing the scientific basis for its guidelines. The agency cited data from more than 100 studies in 17 countries.

Eric Topol, the director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told the Associated Press that a shortened isolation period is feasible but testing should be a requirement.

“We do need to come up with a strategy that limits isolation time, but we don’t want it to be one that’s adding to the spread of the virus and unwittingly leading to the virus circulating,” Topol told the AP.

In December, the CDC also revised guidelines for healthcare workers, shortening the isolation period from 10 days to 7 days. However, the isolation time for can be shortened even further if healthcare organizations are dealing with staffing shortages, the CDC said.

Hospitals across the country are struggling to deal with the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant. This week, Pennsylvania reached a new high in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Other states, including Ohio, Maryland and Delaware have hit pandemic peaks in hospitalizations in recent days. Hospitals officials said some staff have been infected, adding to staffing challenges.

The CDC reports the average 7-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations nationwide has topped 95,000, a 40% increase from the previous week.