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Report: CDC Planning to End 5-Day Isolation Period for COVID-19

COVID-19 test

Editor's Note: On March 1, the CDC updated and simplified its recommendations on isolation for people with respiratory virus symptoms and illnesses.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is expected to drop previous guidance regarding COVID-19 isolation time, according to a Feb. 13 report, in a move that stands to have wide-ranging impacts on the workplace.

Unnamed agency officials told The Washington Post that the CDC is planning to announce this spring that people with COVID-19 no longer need to isolate once they have been fever-free for 24 hours and their symptoms are mild or improving. The current guidance states that people should isolate for at least five days if they tested positive for the virus, then continue to mask for five days.

No official guidance has been announced yet.

California announced relaxed COVID-19 guidance for its own state last month, saying that people who test positive for COVID-19 do not have to isolate for a specific amount of time. Oregon also loosened its policy last year after the COVID-19 public health emergency ended. Now both state policies say that people with symptoms may return to work if 24 hours have passed with no fever, and symptoms are mild or improving.

The news comes at a precarious time as COVID-19 cases have been at very high levels since the holidays, with hospitalizations and deaths rising most weeks this year. As a result, employers are left dealing with significant amounts of employee illness and absences.

The guidance reports also come as industry experts recently told SHRM Online that despite any relaxed guidance—like in California and Oregon—employers would be well served to encourage, and even require, sick employees to stay home. That’s because even though it might seem helpful in the short term to keep employees working, long-term issues will likely arise that will impact more staff and even customers or clients. Ensuring sick employees stay home and take advantage of paid sick leave can keep a staff outbreak at bay.

“It’s important that people have sick leave, and it’s important that we discourage people who are sick from coming to the workplace,” said Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader with WTW in Boston. “Nobody should feel like they’re going to be harshly judged because they call in sick or they do their work virtually.”

Meanwhile, a recent survey of 1,000 managers from Resume Builder found that 20 percent of managers say they encourage workers to come into the office even when they are sick. Surprisingly, 45 percent of these managers (11 percent of the total sample) admit to “often shaming visibly sick workers” who then come into the office after they were told to.

Julia Toothacre, Resume Builder’s resume and career strategist, said having sick employees in the office can backfire on organizations.

“Having a culture where workers are asked to work or just expected to work when sick is bad for companies because it enforces the view that companies only see [employees] as a number versus a human being,” she said. “It creates a culture that lacks empathy and ultimately doesn’t care for its employees’ health, well-being or productivity. People who are sick are more likely to make mistakes and can be slower to comprehend. It doesn’t make sense to encourage sick people to work when they aren’t 100 percent ready to work.”


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