A health care worker in New York City administers a shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to a woman at a pop-up vaccination site (CNS photo/Mike Segar, Reuters).

In May 2023, the state of Oregon quietly broke with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Covid-related quarantine recommendations. Rather than asking infected Oregonians to isolate at home for at least five days, the Oregon Health Authority allowed people infected with Covid to break isolation as soon as they were fever-free for at least twenty-four hours without the aid of medication. “The emergency has ended,” declared Melissa Sutton, medical director for respiratory viral pathogens at the health authority. “Covid-19 is endemic. We’re in a different phase.”

After closely monitoring developments across the state line, California, which had some of the most stringent quarantine restrictions for Covid, announced at the start of this year that people in the state who test positive for the virus no longer need to isolate if they are asymptomatic. 

Now, according to a Washington Post report, the CDC is eager to make a similar change in its own guidelines for a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than a million Americans since it began four years ago. Like Oregon and California before it, the CDC is expected to reduce its current recommended isolation time from five days to one. This modification—the first since 2021, when the center lowered its recommended isolation period for asymptomatic people from ten days to five—puts Covid protocols in line with protocols for more common respiratory illnesses like the flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus. 

CDC officials have yet to publicly discuss the proposed changes, which are expected to take effect in April. In 2021, they explained their decision to lower isolation times amid a surge in infections from the highly transmissible Omicron variant by pointing to evidence that people infected with the coronavirus are most infectious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop. This evidence has not changed in the three years since, but a spokesman for the CDC recently released a statement, saying, “we will continue to make decisions based on the best evidence and science to keep communities healthy and safe.”

Political expediency and public reception now drive most Covid-related policies.

The fact that science wasn’t the only consideration in these new guidelines is hardly surprising. Political expediency and public reception now drive most Covid-related policies. Nearly a year after the Biden administration ended the national emergency response to the pandemic, public-health officials across the country are now trying to keep up with the public’s shrinking tolerance for restrictive health recommendations. “You can be absolutely right in the science,” infectious-disease expert Michael T. Osterholm told the Washington Post, “and yet accomplish nothing because no one will listen to you.”

The early results out of Oregon are promising. In the nine months since the state modified its guidelines, public-health officials say they haven’t noticed a difference in hospitalizations or deaths in their state compared with other states. But there’s still cause for concern. This winter, Covid has killed thousands of Americans every week, and a new strain of the virus called JN.1, classified as a “variant of interest” by the World Health Organization, continues to spread at a rapid clip. 

Public-health officials should continue to proceed with caution. The isolation guidelines may have changed, but many programs that proved effective at the height of the pandemic should remain in place, including paid sick leave and guaranteed family leave, as well as access to free Covid tests and affordable antiviral medications like Paxlovid. These small, relatively inexpensive measures can still make a big difference in preventing transmission and saving lives. As we enter this era of endemic Covid, they also serve as a reminder that no matter how far we’ve come in moving beyond the pandemic, we still have a long way to go. 

Miles Doyle is Commonweal’s special projects editor.

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Published in the March 2024 issue: View Contents
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