The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed many of its Covid-19 guidelines this week, moving sharply away from several of the precautions, including quarantines and social distancing, that have long defined the pandemic.
The move was prompted by the fact that many Americans now have some immunity to the coronavirus — through a combination of vaccination and previous infection — and the availability of vaccines, boosters, and antiviral drugs that can reduce the risk of serious illness.
Part of the public health agency’s goal in issuing the new guidelines was to streamline recommendations and help people manage their own risks, officials said. But the guidelines are still complex and contain many nuances.
Here are answers to some common questions about what the guidelines mean to you.
Do I always have to keep six feet away from strangers?
The CDC hasn’t completely abandoned the idea of social distancing — instead, the agency suggests keeping a distance from others as one of many strategies people can use to help reduce their risk.
The old guidelines recommended that people who were not up to date on their vaccinations “stay at least six feet away from other people” in indoor public spaces.
Now the agency recommends that people “may want to avoid crowded areas” or keep their distance from others to minimize their exposure to the virus. This precaution may be particularly important for people at high risk of severe Covid-19, the agency noted.
Should I always wear a face mask?
General mask guidelines have not changed. The CDC still recommends that anyone age 2 and older wear a properly fitted mask in public indoor spaces when the local Covid-19 community level is high. People at high risk of severe illness should also wear a mask when their communities are at medium level, according to the guidelines.
Nearly 40% of counties in the United States are at a high community level, according to the CDC
What should I do if I have been exposed to the virus?
As a precaution, the CDC used to recommend that people who were not up to date on their vaccinations and who had been in close contact with someone with Covid-19 stay home for at least five days, a practice known as quarantine. (People who were up to date on their vaccines did not need to quarantine if they were asymptomatic, according to previous guidelines.)
The quarantine recommendation is gone, one of the biggest changes in the new guidelines.
“Quarantines are kind of a blunt tool,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University School of Public Health. “I think we need to change the way we think about controlling this virus.”
Now people who have been exposed to the virus can continue with their daily routines regardless of their vaccination status, as long as they remain asymptomatic. However, they must wear a properly fitted mask for a full 10 days, self-monitor for symptoms, take extra safety precautions around vulnerable people, and get tested at least five days after exposure.
If you are using a home antigen test, you may need to test yourself multiple times. To reduce the risk of false-negative results, people who have no symptoms should take at least three tests, each 48 hours apart, according to a new Food and Drug Administration recommendation. People who show symptoms of Covid-19 should take at least two tests 48 hours apart.
“Your viral load goes up after you get infected,” said Dr. Michael Mina, a former Harvard epidemiologist who is now the scientific director of eMed, which sells home tests. “It’s going up, and it takes time.”
What should I do if I test positive for the virus?
Isolate yourself at home for at least five days and keep your distance from other members of your household. This recommendation has not changed.
If you remained asymptomatic during your isolation — or if your symptoms improve and you haven’t had a fever for at least a day — you can leave isolation after day 5, according to guidelines.
Previously, the CDC recommended that people with Covid-19 wear a mask for 10 full days. Under the new guidelines, people can remove their masks early if they test negative on two rapid antigen tests, taken at least 48 hours apart. Others should continue masking for 10 days.
People who have moderate to severe illness or weakened immune systems should self-isolate for at least 10 days, the agency said.
If symptoms return after isolation, people must start their isolation period again, in accordance with the new guidelines.
What does this mean for schools and offices?
In theory, the new guidelines could free many schools and businesses from some of the difficult-to-enforce restrictive measures, including navigating a different set of rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Quarantines have been particularly disruptive and divisive in schools.
Under the new guidelines, children who have been in close contact with someone who has Covid-19 do not need to stay home, and schools do not need to administer frequent tests in order to keep these children in the classroom, an approach known as “testing to stay.” Contact tracing and routine surveillance testing of asymptomatic people is no longer necessary in most settings, the CDC said.
In reality, the new guidelines might not change much in many schools, which were moving further and further away from these measures. Massachusetts, for example, dropped its quarantine requirements for asymptomatic children in May.
Still, some districts and officials are taking cues from federal guidelines, which could prompt some localities to relax their rules for the upcoming academic year.
“We welcome these guidelines,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Thursday. “Every educator and every parent begins each school year with great hope, and this year even more so. After two years of uncertainty and disruption, we need as normal a year as possible so we can focus like a laser on what children need.
In an email to The New York Times on Friday, the New York State Department of Health said it was reviewing the CDC’s new recommendations and would “soon” release its own back-to-school guidelines.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said Friday it is also reviewing new federal guidelines and is still finalizing plans for the upcoming school year.
CDC guidance says schools experiencing outbreaks may want to temporarily adopt additional precautions, including surveillance testing, contact tracing, wearing masks and opening windows and doors to improve ventilation.