If you haven't yet been in the situation where you've received 'the call', the one in which someone you were recently in close contact with rings you a day or two later to let you know they tested positive for COVID-19 (these days, this means positive for the highly transmissible Omicron variant), it’s highly likely that you may be in the coming weeks. Both Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting head of the FDA, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief medical adviser, stated recently that they expect the majority of Americans will eventually be infected with COVID-19. Mercifully, Omicron infection appears to cause less severe disease than previous variants and a large swath of the population has a degree of protective immunity, either through vaccination and/or a previous infection.
The CDC has recently updated its recommendations for quarantine following COVID-19 exposure. To briefly summarize, if you've just found out you had an exposure and you are not experiencing any symptoms (asymptomatic):
- Stay calm. It takes time for the virus to reach detectable levels. The CDC recommends testing on Day 5 (Day 0 is the day of exposure). Testing experts have noted that Omicron tends to replicate more quickly, though, and suggest that–if possible–at-home testing can begin on day three, and continue daily through day seven.
- If you are fully vaccinated and boosted, then you do not need to quarantine (again, if asymptomatic). However, it is recommended to wear a well-fitting mask, such as an N95 or KN95, for 10 days when you are around other people.
- If you are unvaccinated or vaccinated but did not receive a booster, quarantine for 5 days. If you are asymptomatic, you can stop quarantining but should continue to wear a well-fitting mask such as an N95 or KN95 around others for 5 more days.
If you develop symptoms of COVID-19 AND/OR receive a positive test, isolate for at least 5 days if you have confirmed or suspected COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status. Day 0 is counted as either the first day of symptoms or, for those without symptoms, the date of an initial positive COVID-19 test. Isolation means you stay home, separate yourself from others in your household, and – if necessary to be around them -- wear a well-fitting mask at all times. If you had COVID-19 and had symptoms, you can end isolation after 5 full days if you are fever-free for 24 hours (without taking any fever-reducing medications), provided your other symptoms have improved. If you tested positive for COVID-19 but never developed symptoms, you can end isolation after 5 full days. In all cases, you should continue wearing a well-fitting mask around others for 10 days (days 6 - 10).
Serial Testing: If you want to take a test at the end of the 5-day isolation period, it is best to use an antigen test (the more sensitive PCR test can detect very low levels of virus and will often stay positive for weeks after infection). If the test result is negative, as above, end isolation and continue mask-wearing through day 10. If the test result is positive, you should continue isolating until day 10. If you continue to test positive on an antigen test after day 10, the safest route is to continue isolation until you have a negative test result. For many people, this may not be feasible; if this is the case, experts recommend continuing to wear a highly effective mask, such as an N95 or KN95, around others, and being mindful of your contacts (eg avoid public transportation and situations where immunocompromised persons may be present).
* Please check in with your health care provider for concerning symptoms or test results