The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday relaxed many of the guidelines for COVID-19 in communities, a major shift that emphasizes living with the virus rather than strict prevention of infection.
The new guidance puts the onus on individuals to assess their own personal risk levels, rather than businesses, governments or schools. CDC indicated it will focus on protecting people at high risk for severe illness.
CDC officials told reporters the new guidelines are an acknowledgement that most of the population has some form of protection from the virus, either from prior infection or from vaccination, and are unlikely to become seriously ill.
“The virus that causes COVID-19 continues to circulate globally. But importantly, the current conditions of this pandemic are very different from those of the last two years,” CDC epidemiologist Greta Massetti said during a briefing.
“This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” Massetti said.
The changes show a tacit shift from the Biden administration, which has faced criticism for continuing to recommend strict prevention methods even as vaccines and antiviral treatments have been widely available.
Those treatments and prevention tools “now allow public health efforts to minimize the individual and societal health impacts of COVID-19 by focusing on sustainable measures to further reduce medically significant illness as well as to minimize strain on the health care system, while reducing barriers to social, educational, and economic activity,” the agency wrote in a report accompanying the new guidelines.
While the newest BA.5 subvariant of omicron has caused a major wave of infections across the country, the majority of them have been mild and did not require hospitalizations among people who were vaccinated. Importantly though, officials have emphasized prior infection does not offer much, if any protection, from BA.5.
Massetti said the agency wants to ensure people have the information they need to make risk-based decisions for themselves, and then are able to take advantage of tools and resources like vaccines and treatments when needed.
The new guidelines no longer recommend case investigation and contact tracing, except in health care settings and certain high-risk congregate settings.
“In all other circumstances, public health efforts can focus on case notification and provision of information and resources to exposed persons about access to testing,” CDC said.
The new guidance also treats a COVID-19 exposure in the same way regardless of whether the person exposed is vaccinated.
Previous guidance suggested that someone who was unvaccinated and was a close contact of someone infected should quarantine for five days, even if they tested negative and had no symptoms. A vaccinated person could skip quarantine.
Under the new guidelines, there is no quarantine recommendation.
The agency no longer recommends physical distancing, and instead asks individuals to consider the risk in specific settings.
CDC will also no longer recommend screening testing of asymptomatic people without known exposures, except in certain high-risk settings like nursing homes and prisons.
“Screening testing might not be cost-effective in general community settings, especially if COVID-19 prevalence is low,” CDC wrote.
The screening change will most likely have the biggest impact in schools, offices and day care facilities.
In schools, CDC removed the recommendation that kids avoid mingling with other classrooms, a practice known as cohorting.
It also removed a recommendation on “test-to-stay,” which was aimed at keeping children who were exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom as long as they had no symptoms and repeatedly tested negative.
The practice was recommended last winter at the height of the omicron wave, but proved resource intensive.