You were vaccinated, boosted, and briefly sidelined with the Omicron variant in January 2022—but now you’ve got a tickle in your throat. Could it be another SARS-CoV-2 infection? And, if it is, what should you do if you test positive for COVID-19? Do you need to tell your boss you’ll be out of the office for five days, ten days, or until you’re no longer symptomatic?
Isolation and quarantine guidelines for COVID-19 have changed considerably over the past two years. Here’s what you need to know about the evolution of cautionary guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the current precautions when it comes to COVID-19 illness and exposures.
The Evolution of Isolation and Quarantine Guidance for COVID-19 Illness
When the SARS-CoV-2 virus first emerged onto the scene in January 2020, next to nothing was known by U.S. health officials about the infectiousness of the virus or its character. One of the main concerns of public health officials was to stop or slow the spread of the disease. For this reason, relatively conservative isolation and quarantine guidelines were set into place. For people who tested positive for the virus, an isolation period of ten days was recommended, and people who were still symptomatic were recommended to isolate for longer. For people who were exposed to the virus, a quarantine period of 14 days was advised.
In late December 2021, the CDC shortened its recommended isolation time to five days. Additionally, it was recommended that, after five days, if symptoms were improving (including no fever for 24 hours), people could stop isolating and return to their normal activities. However, they would still need to wear a mask for five additional days.
In late December 2021, the CDC also changed its quarantine guidelines. If unvaccinated persons or people who were unboosted and more than six months out from their vaccine were exposed to COVID-19, they were advised to quarantine for five days and wear a mask for an additional five days. People who had received a booster did not need to quarantine but they did need to wear a mask for ten days.
Current Isolation and Quarantine Guidelines
Given this history of evolving recommendations, it’s helpful to have a simple breakdown of current CDC guidance. The current guidelines set forth by the CDC are as follows:
People who test positive for COVID-19 should isolate at home for five days. They may end isolation after five days if they’re improving and have not had a fever for 24 hours. They should then wear a well-fitting mask for 5 additional days and avoid traveling until after day 10.
It’s important to note that these guidelines apply to everyone, regardless of vaccination status.
People who are exposed to COVID-19 and are not up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations should quarantine at home for five days and get tested at least five days after the exposure. Then, they should wear a well-fitting mask for fiive more days, and be cautious when it comes to travel.
People who are exposed to COVID-19 and are up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations, and people who have had a confirmed positive COVID-19 test in the past 90 days, do not need to quarantine at home. They should still get tested at least five days after the exposure, and they should wear a well-fitting mask for 10 days from the exposure.
How Has COVID-19 Testing Improved?
Throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 testing has become much more accessible, which has made it easier for people to know when they’re positive for the disease. Before the availability of at-home tests, the only way of knowing if you were positive for COVID-19 was by going to a healthcare facility that did testing. And, because of testing shortages, sometimes you couldn’t even get a test unless you were very symptomatic. Now, testing is available without an order from a healthcare professional, allowing people to track and monitor their status much more easily, from the comfort of home.
Why Is Isolation Shorter Now Than It Was Two Years Ago?
As public health experts have learned more about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 illness, they have been able to better hone their precautionary guidance. Emerging science shows that the grand majority of infections are transmitted in the early days of COVID-19 illness, either 1-2 days before symptoms begin, or 2-3 days after people are symptomatic. Additionally, the Omicron variant has a shorter incubation period and appears to be more likely to transmit early on, compared to former variants.
What to Do if You’re Exposed to Someone with COVID-19
If you’re exposed to someone with COVID-19, your course of action depends on your personal vaccination and infection status. If you’re vaccinated and boosted, the CDC says that you do not need to quarantine at home. You may continue with your activities, making sure to wear a well-fitting mask for 10 days from your exposure and be prudent with limiting your exposures. The same is true if you’ve had a positive COVID-19 test within the past 90 days, regardless of vaccination status. If you're unvaccinated and have not had COVID-19 within the past 90 days, the CDC recommends you quarantine at home for 5 days and continue wearing a well-fitted mask for an additional five days.
How to Learn More about Isolating and Quarantining for COVID-19
Although the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 is much lower than it was when the pandemic originally began—thanks to vaccines, effective treatments, and a virus that has evolved to be more benign—still more than 100,000 people in the United States testing positive for COVID-19 every day as of June 2022. Your risk of being exposed to COVID-19 remains high, so it’s important to be aware of the present guidelines on COVID-19 isolation and quarantine. To learn more, visit the CDC’s updated page, here.
Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members.
CDC Updates and Shortens Recommended Isolation and Quarantine Period for General Population. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2021/s1227-isolation-quarantine-guidance.html
Quarantine and Isolation. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/quarantine-isolation.html
What we Know About Quarantine and Isolation. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/quarantine-isolation-background.html
COVID Data Tracker Weekly Review. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/covidview/index.html
Quarantine & Isolation. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/quarantine-isolation.html
I Have to Quarantine for How Long? And Other COVID-19 Questions Answered. https://www.mtu.edu/news/2020/09/i-have-to-quarantine-for-how-long-and-other-covid19-questions-answered.html