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The CDC just made a disturbing change to its coronavirus guidelines

Published Aug 26th, 2020 1:02PM EDT
Coronavirus Testing
Image: JHDT Productions/Adobe

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  • The CDC has just changed its coronavirus testing guidelines for people who show no symptoms — even after contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient.
  • The agency says that testing is not necessarily required without unless COVID-19 symptoms present, a marked change in tone compared to previous versions of the document.
  • Experts worry that the new guidelines might give people a false sense of security, and some people who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic might believe they pose no danger to themselves or to others.

It may seem like the novel coronavirus has been with us forever, but it’s only really been about eight months. These were eight busy months for everyone involved with handling the pandemic, from frontline workers and public health officials to researchers studying the virus. Even after eight months, we keep learning new things about the virus and that won’t change anytime soon. The virus is still young, and some of its secrets are only now beginning to come to light. That explains why the various agencies that oversee the response to COVID-19 on a national or international level change their guidelines regularly with new information.

The CDC has been adapting its COVID-19 information pages frequently, adding new symptoms, updating quarantine rules, and even changing its travel advice. That’s really how things should work with any new health crisis. But not all these updates are immediately clear to the public, and sometimes it takes a while for people to notice them. Also, some of these updates might not always be great news for the public, and the latest discovery is somewhat concerning. The CDC has changed its COVID-19 testing guidelines to suggest that people who think they were exposed to the virus but do not show any symptoms have nothing to worry about.

The agency changed its guidelines earlier this week, revising its advice on testing for people who may be infected but are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. There’s quite a difference between those two categories. The former may not show symptoms initially, but they could be contagious before the first COVID-19 signs start appearing. The latter — asymptomatic cases — do develop unseen signs of the disease that can be observed on CT scans and in blood tests, even if they don’t feel any different. Health experts still disagree on the contagiousness of COVID-19 patients who don’t have symptoms, but scientists proved these people develop high viral loads and they could indeed be infectious.

If you suspect you came in contact with an infected person, a test could give you a clear answer and it might save lives. The faster a positive COVID-19 diagnosis comes in, the quicker you can take measures, whether that’s self-isolation or a consult with a doctor. On top of that, you might be unknowingly spreading the potentially deadly disease.

But the CDC now says that “if you have been in close contact (within 6 feet) of a person with a COVID-19 infection for at least 15 minutes but do not have symptoms, then you do not necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable individual or your health care provider or state or local public health officials recommend you take one.”

In fairness, the CDC doesn’t stop anyone from getting a test. The agency notes that a negative test does not necessarily mean you’re in the clear, and that’s true as well. You should still wait a few days between the suspected contact and the actual test, to give the virus time to multiply if it’s present in your system. It won’t show up immediately in tests.

A previous version of the guidelines said that “testing is recommended for all close contacts” of people infected with COVID-19 regardless of symptoms. The previous version also focused on “the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission” to spread the illness.

But experts disagree with the revision, The New York Times explains. The new guidelines may increase the spread of the virus and delay treatments.

“This is potentially dangerous,” infectious disease expert Dr. Krutika Kuppalli told The Times. “you’re not looking for a lot of people who are potential spreaders of disease. I feel like this is going to make things worse.”

“Wow, that is a walk-back,” clinical microbiologist Dr. Susan Butler-Wu said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and that’s a really big change,” adding that the new guidelines might be misinterpreted. People might think that if they do not have symptoms, they can’t infect others — but we know that’s not true. Just a few weeks ago, we learned of a man who died after being exposed to an asymptomatic carrier at a post-lockdown barbecue. The COVID-19 patient thought he would not be a danger to others because he had no symptoms.

It’s unclear what prompted the CDC change. The Times says that questions about the matter were directed to a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesperson who said, “the decision to be tested should be one made in collaboration with public health officials or your health care provider based on individual circumstances and the status of community spread.”

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.