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Why the CDC says a test to leave COVID-19 quarantine isn’t needed

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People with COVID-19 won’t be required to test negative to leave quarantine because rapid tests aren’t designed to determine how contagious a person is, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky addressed the health agency’s confusing, changing isolation guidelines for those who test positive, explaining why the CDC stopped short of recommending the testing.

“These tests are authorized for qualitative purposes, not quantitative purposes, meaning we can’t tell how transmissible you are based on a positive or a negative test,” Walensky said at a White House press conference. “The FDA has authorized these rapid tests for early [diagnosis] in the disease course.”

But the CDC nevertheless offered advice on how to “interpret” the tests when coming out of isolation —  a sign that they work on some level — after the agency cut its recommended quarantine time and was bombarded with questions last week. 

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Dr. Rochelle Walensky explained why the CDC stopped short of recommending the testing.
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File

“After we released our recommendations early last week, it became very clear that people became interested in using the rapid tests, though they are not authorized for this purpose,” Walensky said. “We then provided guidance on how they should be used.”

“If that test is positive, people should stay home for those extra five days and if that test is negative, people really do need to understand they must continue to wear their mask for those extra five days to complete a 10-day isolation period,” she added.

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Her attempt to clarify came after the CDC reduced its recommended quarantine period from 10 to five days without a testing requirement in late December, sparking backlash and a flood of questions.

Dr. Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci said there may soon be tests that are able to determine a person’s transmissibility level.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

On Sunday,  Dr. Anthony Fauci said the CDC will consider new guidance that asks asymptomatic people infected with COVID-19 to test negative before leaving quarantine. 

The CDC said Tuesday it won’t ask people to test negative before leaving quarantine but still updated its online guidance. The new guidance states that if a person has access to a test and wants to take it, the best approach is to take an antigen test near the end of their five-day isolation period.

On Wednesday, Fauci said the federal government is teaming up with scientists to develop tests that may soon be able to determine a person’s transmissibility level.

Used coronavirus disease (COVID-19) rapid antigen test kits with negative result
People with COVID-19 won’t be required to test negative to leave quarantine.
REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

“There is a lot of work going on in the bioengineering institute and bioimaging institute looking at refining and fine-tuning tests from every aspect — sensitivity, specificity and predictability. And those are ongoing studies now with considerable investment,” he said.

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