CDC Shortens COVID Isolation and Quarantine Times

illustration of stopwatch on top of virus cells


Key Takeaways

  • The CDC is changing its isolation and quarantine guidance, shortening the amount of time you should stay away from others from 10 days to five.
  • The agency says the change is motivated by science demonstrating that most COVID transmission occurs early in the course of illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Monday that the agency is shortening the isolation time for people who test positive for COVID-19 from 10 days to five days .

The guidance follows shortened recommendations for healthcare workers who test positive for the virus, released just before Christmas.

According to the CDC, isolation for five days followed by wearing a well-fitting mask for five days will minimize the risk of spreading the virus to others. 

What Is Isolation?

Isolation is the term for what you do when you have a confirmed COVID infection, even if you do not have symptoms. Quarantine is the term for what you do when you have only been exposed (in close contact with) someone who has COVID. 

“Given what we currently know about COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, CDC is shortening the recommended time for isolation from 10 days for people with COVID-19 to five days, if asymptomatic, followed by five days of wearing a mask when around others…to minimize the risk of infecting others,” the agency said in its statement.

What If You Were Exposed, But Haven't Tested Positive?

The CDC has also updated quarantine guidance for those who are exposed to COVID-19 but haven’t tested positive. The guidance is different for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated/not yet boosted.

For people who are unvaccinated or for whom it has been more than six months since their second dose or the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine (or more than two months after the J&J vaccine) and not yet boosted, the CDC now recommends quarantine for five days followed by strict mask use for an additional five days. If a five-day quarantine isn’t possible, the agency says it’s critically important that the person wear a well-fitting mask at all times when around others for 10 days after exposure.

Individuals who have received their booster shot do not need to quarantine following an exposure, but should wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure.

For all those exposed, best practice includes a COVID test (antigen or PCR) five days after exposure. If symptoms occur, individuals should immediately quarantine until a negative test confirms symptoms are not attributable to COVID-19.

Why Is the Guidance Changing?

The Omicron variant is what drove the update. In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases have increased, with many parts of the country experiencing substantial levels of community transmission. As more people become infected or exposed, the CDC needed to reevaluate how long they really needed to be down for the count.

CDC director Rochelle Walensky explained the decision to update the guidelines in a statement issued on Monday.

“The Omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society. CDC’s updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine balance what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses,” Walensky said. “These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives.”

According to the agency, the update is motivated by current science that shows most COVID transmission occurs early in the course of illness: somewhere between one to two days prior to symptom onset and the two to three days after.

Pushback From Nurses

On Tuesday, National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union or registered nurses in the country, formally condemned the CDC guidance. NNU says that the change is motivated less by science, and more by employers who want workers back on the clock.

“Let’s be clear: This is about what’s good for business, not what’s good for public health,” said NNU president Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, in a statement. “Our employers claim there is a ‘nursing shortage,’ and that’s why they must flout optimal isolation times, but we know there are plenty of registered nurses in this country. There is only a shortage of nurses willing to work in the unsafe conditions created by hospital employers and this government’s refusal to impose lifesaving standards.”

Still, others say the guidance is realistic based on the current state of the pandemic.

“The guidelines maximize the chances that society does not grind to a half over the next few weeks over the rise in cases, the majority of which will be mild,” Shira Doron, MD, hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, told Verywell.

More Changes to Come

Robert Lahita, MD, PhD, a clinical professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the chairman of the department of medicine at St. Joseph’s Healthcare System, in Wayne, New Jersey, told Verywell that while he thinks the CDC guidance is sound, it’s not the last change we’ll see.

“I expect more changes to be made by the CDC as we learn more and continue to observe this—and future—variants,” he said.

Amesh Adalja, MD, FIDSA, senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, agrees.

“I think the guidance makes sense and is scientifically sound,” Adalja told Verywell. “Hopefully, it could be shortened further using rapid tests.”

Of course, you’ve probably heard how hard it is to find a home-based test or schedule a clinic test and that results are taking longer, sometimes rendering testing useless.

Testing availability should improve soon. In a call with state governors on Monday, President Biden outlined what the White House is doing:

  • Expanding the number of free testing locations to more than 20,000
  • Using the Defense Production Act to manufacture more at-home tests
  • Reimbursing the cost of at-home tests through insurance companies (beginning in January)

Advice for Testing

Patrick Emad, vice president of clinic operations for Sameday Health, a chain of clinics that offer COVID-19 testing, explains that while antigen (rapid) tests are often analyzed at the clinic for quick results, most PCR tests are shuttled to a lab. In the case of Sameday Health, this happens several times a day. If travel or other needs make getting fast PCR results imperative, you’re best off booking a test early in the day.

Emad advises keeping at-home tests on hand, once you find them, in case you’re unable to book a nearby appointment when you need it.

“And if you decide not to come in for a scheduled test, cancel the one you’ve booked to open the spot up for someone else,” Emad said.   

What This Means For You

If you test positive for COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, isolate yourself for at least five days. If you were exposed to COVID-19 and haven’t tested positive, things are a little more complicated. But if you’re overdue for a booster or unvaccinated, your first step should be quarantining yourself for five days, too.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Fran Kritz
Fran Kritz is a freelance healthcare reporter with a focus on consumer health and health policy. She is a former staff writer for Forbes Magazine and U.S. News and World Report.