Nurse Unions Call the CDC's New Isolation Guidance 'Unconscionable'

A nurse at Three Rivers Asante Medical Center runs to a room in the Intensive Care Unit to help as medical staff treat a COVID-19 patient on September 9, 2021 in Grants Pass, Oregon.

Nathan Howard / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The CDC shortened its isolation guidance for people with COVID-19 to five days without requiring an additional test.
  • Healthcare workers criticized the agency’s decision, saying that it jeopardizes the safety of both the workers and patients.
  • Experts say that Omicron appears to be contagious for a shorter amount of time than previous variants, which could be reason for the agency’s change.

Healthcare workers have widely criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s decision to shorten its recommended isolation period from 10 days to five days for people infected with COVID-19.

Despite strong pushback, the CDC has resisted adding a requirement for people to take another COVID-19 test before ending their quarantine.

After the change in CDC’s recommendation, there have been reports of hospital workers being pressured to go back to work while still testing positive for COVID-19.

In a fiery press release, the National Nurses United (NNU) called the CDC decision “unconscionable,” saying that it would “weaken the isolation guidance in the face of the more transmissible and vaccine-resistant Omicron variant and what could be the most devastating COVID surge yet.”

Prior to the change, the union had written a letter to CDC director Rochelle Walensky, urging her to keep the former 10 day isolation guidance.

According to the CDC, the updated recommendation is based on evolving evidence that Omicron has a shorter incubation time, between two to four days.

“Spread of the Omicron variant has the potential to worsen staffing shortages and increase supply chain challenges, which jeopardize industry, education, and other systems that are essential to maintain a functioning society and economy,” the CDC wrote.

Dina Velocci, DNP, CRNA, APRN, president of the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology (AANA), told Verywell that the CDC decision demonstrated an “incredible fragmentation of rules, ideas, theories” that has been ongoing throughout the pandemic.

“I’m sad to say we’ve lost trust and faith in what we’re doing as far as what’s right,” Velocci said. “We know as healthcare providers, if you’re sick, you stay home until you’re well.”

Early in the pandemic, healthcare workers were told to reuse personal protective equipment (PPE) or even substitute masks with handkerchiefs. These were examples of the agency’s inconsistencies and unscientific decisions that jeopardized the safety of healthcare workers, Velocci added.

The NNU said that the weakened CDC guidelines "are motivated by the employers wanting workers back on the clock fast, regardless of whether it’s safe, to maximize their profit."

“Let’s be clear: This is about what’s good for business, not what’s good for public health,” NNU president Zenei Triunfo-Cortez said in a statement. “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. So this is a vicious cycle where weakening protections just drives more nurses away from their jobs.”

Dina Velocci, DNP, CRNA, APRN

I’m sad to say we’ve lost trust and faith in what we’re doing as far as what’s right. We know as healthcare providers, if you’re sick, you stay home until you’re well.

— Dina Velocci, DNP, CRNA, APRN

Does CDC's 5-Day Isolation Guidance Make Sense?

William Lang, MD, MHA, chief medical officer at WorldClinic and former White House physician, told Verywell that the CDC’s decision is based on the number of days that someone remains infectious with the Omicron variant.

“Everything about Omicron is much faster,” Lang said. Earlier in the pandemic, the period of transmission was about eight days after symptom onset. The window then narrowed to six days with Delta, and even fewer with Omicron, he added.

“If you’ve got something other than Omicron, in five days you may still be infectious,” Lang said. “But if you’re wearing a mask, you’re going to certainly be relatively well at protecting people from getting infected.”

Lang explained that the CDC made a “calculated risk assessment” and that the relative risk of reducing quarantine time is “very low.”

But the CDC’s reluctance to require additional testing is likely due to the ongoing shortage of test kits. Requiring testing after five days may keep people out of work and social life for a longer time, especially for people who can’t find a test right away, he said.

Still, some healthcare workers expressed that boosting the economy should not be valued over their health and safety, even if it’s a low risk.

In order to tackle the pandemic and take care of patients in the long run, Velocci said the agency needs to be more attentive to healthcare workers.

“We have a population out there that is incredibly sick. They need to be taken care of. It needs to be a skilled workforce, which is who we are and what we are,” she said. “But at what point do we say, hey, we could have put some boundaries here to protect the people so that we don’t burn them out. Who’s going to be there in five years at the bedside?”

What This Means For You

The CDC shortened its isolation guidance for people infected with COVID-19 to five days without requiring testing before ending their quarantine. Experts say that Omicron’s infectious timeframe seems to be shorter than that of the Delta variant. Still, the shortened guidelines may be harmful to healthcare workers who are required to go back to work and treat patients while they’re still infectious.

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.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What we know about quarantine and isolation.

  2. Peeling RW, Heymann DL, Teo YY, Garcia PJ. Diagnostics for COVID-19: moving from pandemic response to controlLancet. Published online December 20, 2021. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(21)02346-1

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.