The key to getting people to stick to COVID quarantines? Shorten them.

The key to getting people to stick to COVID quarantines? Shorten them.

The CDC is considering shortening the amount of time they recommend people quarantine for COVID-19 and introduce testing into the quarantine procedure.

The CDC is considering shortening the amount of time they recommend people quarantine for COVID-19 and introduce testing into the quarantine procedure. (Unsplash/)

The Centers for Disease Control’s mandated COVID-19 quarantine that we’ve come to know and dread this past year may be changing soon. The CDC has given indications that it plans to shorten quarantines and use a combination of testing and briefer quarantine procedures to help control the spread of COVID-19.

CDC representative Henry Walke told The Wall Street Journal this week that the organization is currently working on new guidelines that will shorten the currently 14-day quarantine period and introduce testing into its quarantine protocols. “We do think that the work that we’ve done, and some of the studies we have and the modeling data that we have, shows that we can, with testing, shorten quarantines,” Walke said.

“Fourteen days has always kind of been the magic period,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Popular Science. “As a messaging time period, it was the best way to capture the time from exposure to development of disease.”

But as our understanding of COVID-19 and how to test for it changes, he says, nobody should be surprised to see quarantine guidelines changing. “We should anticipate that we’ll have continued refinements in a whole range of the guidances as we learn more,” he says.

The original 14-day quarantine period was chosen because the virus can have an incubation period of up to 14 days, meaning that it could take an infected person as long as two weeks to show symptoms. However, research over the past several months has found that the median incubation period for the virus is five days, and, on average, 97.5 percent of people exposed to the virus show symptoms by day 12.

The proposed change, according to The New York Times, would lessen the 14-day timeline to between seven and 10 days, and include a test at the end of that period.

Before we go any farther, it’s important to know the distinctions between quarantine and the other processes we’ve become most familiar with over the past eight months: Quarantine is the practice of self-isolating when you may have been exposed to COVID-19, in order not to pass it on unintentionally; social distancing is the practice of remaining physically distant from those not in your household in order to reduce the likelihood of passing or catching COVID-19; and finally, isolation is staying away from all other people because you definitely have COVID-19 and are contagious.

Revised CDC guidelines in this case would address quarantine procedures only. The social distancing measures we’re all familiar with now—physical distancing, masking, and regular hand washing—would remain in place, unchanged.

While some experts think this change could result in some infections being missed by testing, others, including Benjamin think it has some important benefits.  Outside the pure health questions, says Benjamin, people might be more inclined to follow public health guidance if the task is less daunting. “We have enormous issues around compliance,” he says.

“It’s been a very long and tough year for many people,” says Michelle Patch, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. If science supports the idea of shortening quarantine times, she says, that—coupled with weeks of positive news about COVID-19 vaccine development—might help raise morale during the holiday season and encourage people to continue practicing social distancing measures.

The key is in communication, Benjamin says. “The more we can refine [public-health guidance] and then articulate it in a way that everybody can understand, we’re much more likely to get better compliance. And if we get better compliance, at the end of the day we’ll get better disease control.”

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