If you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, the standard advice is that you should quarantine for 14 days and see if you develop symptoms. But the CDC has now updated its protocols to allow for a 10-day or, in some cases, a 7-day quarantine period.
There is a catch, of course, and in this case it’s the fact that a 14-day quarantine is still the better choice. But CDC officials believe that a 10-day quarantine is enough to detect most cases, and that people are more likely to actually comply with a quarantine if they know it’s only for 10 days tops.
What does this look like in practice?
Let’s say you’re feeling healthy but have learned that a friend you saw a few days ago has COVID. You haven’t had COVID yourself—or if you have, it was more than three months ago—so you can’t assume you have any immunity.
Uh-oh. You might have picked up the virus from them, but if so, you won’t know it for a little while. On average, symptoms take 4-5 days to develop, but occasionally it can take longer: up to 14 days, hence the standard length of quarantine.
So I’ll just get a test, you might think. But a test taken too early can result in a false negative, so it’s not your ticket out of quarantine. You just have to wait.
This is the crux of quarantine: it’s a sort of limbo where you are waiting to see if you are infected or not. If you are still symptom-free after 14 days, you can assume that you don’t have the virus.
If you do develop symptoms (and a test confirms that the cause is COVID-19), you’re no longer quarantining. Your first day of symptoms is now your first day of isolation—so, yes, the clock resets—and you need to isolate for at least 10 days after the onset of symptoms.
What has changed?
Under the new rules, you should still do your best not to breathe on other people for the full 14 days, which means wearing a mask when you go out. And you should keep an eye out for symptoms. If you get a cough and fever on day 13, it could still be COVID.
But you may be able to go back to work before the 14-day period is up. Your local health department will tell you how long you should quarantine, and in some cases they may be okay with the shortened 10-day quarantine period. (Don’t freehand this; check your state or county website, or ask questions when a contact tracer gets in touch.)
If they’re going with the shorter time period, there are two ways out of full quarantine:
- You wait for 10 days to elapse
- You get a COVID test on day 5 or later; if it’s negative, your time is up after day 7.
Why is this okay?
Because we live in hell.
“Reducing the length of quarantine may make it easier for people to quarantine by reducing economic hardship if they cannot work during this time,” the CDC explains. Other countries pay people to stay home when they are sick. In the U.S., our leaders have refused to do the same. This means that, for many workers, complying with quarantine guidelines means going without income.
The new recommendations don’t mean our overall situation has changed. But shortening quarantine means that you may be financially screwed for a shorter period of time. Hopefully, you’ll also be more likely to participate in testing and contact tracing if you’re risking one week off of work rather than two.
“In addition, a shorter quarantine period can lessen stress on the public health system, especially when new infections are rapidly rising,” the CDC continues. Again, we live in hell. We have so many COVID cases, and we’re chalking up so many more each day, that the contact tracers can’t keep up. Time that healthcare professionals spend quarantining is time they can’t be treating patients, and staffing is more of an issue than the availability of ICU beds right now.
For more, read the official CDC quarantine guidelines.