Goodbye Delta, Hello Omicron: A Breakdown of the CDC’s Newest Protocols

Amy-Grace Shapiro, Feature Editor

In light of a surge in COVID-19 cases as a result of the Omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made modifications to their COVID-19 protocols and guidelines. On Dec. 27, the CDC announced its initial round of changes to shorten the time infected individuals must isolate for. However, after receiving backlash, the organization released its updated recommendations on Jan. 4, along with a rationale. 

As part of the updated guidelines, the organization has redefined quarantine and isolation lengths along with circumstances in which an individual may leave isolation early. 

What is the difference between a quarantine period and isolation?

By definition, quarantine is a strategy used to prevent transmission COVID-19 by keeping people who have been in close contact with someone with the virus apart from others. Close contact refers to when someone is less than six feet away from an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. During quarantine, the CDC recommends individuals stay away from others for at least five days after their last exposure to the virus. 

Whereas isolation is a method used to separate people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 from those without, the CDC recommends that individuals with suspected or confirmed positive cases stay home and isolate themselves from others for at least five full days. Individuals with confirmed positive COVID-19 test results or present symptoms must isolate regardless of vaccination status. 

Apart from isolation length, the update also notes when individuals must quarantine and when it is not necessary. Those who came into close contact with someone with COVID-19 should quarantine if they are 18 or older and have received the primary series of recommended vaccines but have not received a booster dose, those who received a single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine over two months ago and those who have not received a booster dose or individuals who are not vaccinated. Those who came into close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual but are 18 or older and received all recommended vaccine doses including booster doses, are between the ages of five through 17 and completed the primary dose of COVID-19 vaccine or have had a confirmed COVID-19 positive test from the last 90 days do not need to quarantine. 

Ending Isolation

According to the CDC, those who tested positive for COVID-19 but had no symptoms may end isolation after at least five days — day one being the day after the positive test. However, the report suggests individuals should continue to wear a well-fitting mask around others until day 10, avoid those with compromised immunity or at high risk until after at least 10 days and withhold traveling until 10 days after the day of a positive test. 

In terms of people who had COVID-19 along with symptoms, isolation can end after five full days as long as the individual is fever-free for 24 hours without the use of medication and other symptoms have improved. However, after five days individuals should continue to wear a mask around others for an additional five days. 

For individuals who have severe illness or a weakened immune system, they are recommended to isolate at home longer and may also require testing with a viral test to determine if they are cleared to leave. The CDC recommends an isolation period of at least 10 to 20 days for those who had severe symptoms from COVID-19.

The CDC’S Rationale and Response 

The CDC has received the majority of its criticism of the new guidelines from the lack of negative tests required to leave isolation, leaving many health care workers and scientists concerned for future spread. However, officials explained that COVID-19 tests serve best as a tool early in an illness to diagnose the disease — not to evaluate how long someone is infectious. For example, the commonly used PCR testing kit can continue to show positive results even after an individual is no longer infectious as it is used to detect even the smallest amounts of the virus. Moreover, the rationale also suggests the cause of a shorter isolation period is due to the Omicron variant’s incubation period shortening the period one’s infectiousness peaks. 

How does this apply to Public schools across the nation?

In terms of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, beginning on Jan. 3, the county requires all employees, volunteers, visitors, vendors and contractors to wear facial coverings when indoors at any district school or facility. As for students, the district has not mandated facial coverings but highly encourages the practice. All spectators at school sporting events must also wear facial coverings.

In the event where an employee tests positive for COVID-19, they are recommended to stay home for five days, return to work on day six if asymptomatic or if symptoms are no longer present and must continue to wear a mask around others upon return. Self-isolation and quarantine protocols for students will remain the same.

The district is continuing to encourage social distancing, COVID-19 testing, vaccinations and frequent hand washing. Similarly, the district has continued with the enhanced sanitation and cleaning of classrooms and common areas implemented during the beginning of the school year.