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CDC's new guidance ends test-to-stay for schools and relaxes COVID rules

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Americans are getting new advice on how to live with COVID-19.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed some of its guidance on what to do when you've been exposed to COVID and how schools handle the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRETA MASSETTI: Regardless of vaccination status, we are no longer recommending quarantine after an exposure.

MARTINEZ: That's Greta Massetti, a top CDC official. Now, the aim is to simplify COVID rules, as many states have already done.

FADEL: NPR health reporter Pien Huang joins us now to discuss. Good morning, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what exactly is the CDC changing?

HUANG: Well, a few key things. As you just heard, the CDC is no longer recommending quarantine for people who get exposed to the virus. Remember, that's when you've just been around someone who gets COVID, but you yourself don't have any symptoms. So they're saying in that situation, you should mask, but so long as you feel fine, you can go about your life. And that's a change they're bringing into schools as well. So now there's no need to quarantine or take special measures unless you're actively sick. So that effectively means they're ending what's known as test to stay, which was a strategy where kids who got exposed to COVID could still go to school if they tested negative. Now no tests are needed so long as they're feeling fine. And this, along with a few other changes, shows that the CDC just doesn't think it's important or practical to keep finding asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases. With this guidance as well, they're not giving different advice anymore for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. What they're focusing on instead is isolating people who are actively sick and stopping serious illness.

FADEL: What's been the reaction to these changes?

HUANG: Well, it's mixed. I mean, dealing with COVID in schools has been controversial, and some worry that this is going too far. But overall, the reaction skews towards positive. Many people told me that this makes sense given where we're at. Dr. Marcus Plescia from the Association for State and Territorial Health Officials says that the new CDC guidance shifts the burden towards individuals figuring out their own levels of risk and how they want to deal with it.

MARCUS PLESCIA: And I think that is consistent because where we are with the pandemic right now, I don't really think there are many state or local jurisdictions that are feeling that they're going to need to start making mandates about, you know, social interactions and wearing masks.

HUANG: And he says that that's how public health deals with flu. Every year, they encourage people to get vaccinated. They give tips on how to avoid getting it or spreading it. But they're not closing schools down or requiring mask wearing to stop every case.

FADEL: OK. But this is a big change. How did the CDC justify relaxing its COVID rules?

HUANG: Well, they said that we're in a place where most people in the U.S. have at least some protection from the virus. Here's Greta Massetti, the senior CDC official, again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MASSETTI: High levels of population immunity due to vaccination and previous infection, and the many available tools to protect the general population and protect people at higher risk, allow us to focus on protecting people from serious illness from COVID-19.

HUANG: About 95% of people in the U.S. have either gotten vaccinated or have recovered from COVID or both. Still, we know that doesn't mean you can't catch the virus, just hopefully that you'll have a mild case. So Massetti said that there's booster shots, antivirals, special shots for the immunocompromised. There are several layers out there that can help stop many people from getting hospitalized or dying from COVID.

FADEL: NPR's Pien Huang, thank you.

HUANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.