CDC considers dropping 5-day COVID isolation rule as local hospitals bring back mask requirements

 A woman wears a mask at her home after previously having COVID. The Centers for Disease Control is considering loosening isolation rules for people who get the disease.

A woman wears a mask at her home after previously having COVID. The Centers for Disease Control is considering loosening isolation rules for people who get the disease. ap


Staff Writer

Published: 02-20-2024 5:55 PM

Modified: 02-21-2024 1:44 PM

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering loosening isolation requirements for people who test positive for COVID-19, meaning they would no longer have to stay at home for at least five days when infected with the virus.

Under the new approach, which the CDC could implement this spring, isolation guidelines would be determined to be necessary if someone who tests positive experiences fever-type symptoms or has to take medication — similar guidelines for the flu or other respiratory diseases.

The proposal comes despite hospitals like Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, part of the Mass General Brigham system, recently bringing back mask requirements for staff to combat a recent surge in COVID-19 cases as well as other respiratory diseases such as RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. The number of COVID cases peaked around the start of the new year in Massachusetts, although they been declining since then, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.

Cooley Dickinson and MGH declined to comment for this story, saying that CDC policy was beyond the purview of the hospital to make a statement on.

A top doctor at Baystate Health, the region’s largest hospital system, noted that although the changes may end up altering isolation requirements, masking rules would not change. That would mean that people testing positive for COVID-19 will likely still be required to wear masks when leaving the home.

“There’s really no head-to-head comparison to say, is COVID significantly impacted by reducing the isolation, as long as you’re wearing a mask?” said Dr. Armando Paez, the division chief of infectious diseases at Baystate. “We don’t know. The anticipation is that this is probably not going to have much impact.”

Paez said that thanks to previous infection waves and vaccinations against the virus, communities have developed a good amount of immunity from COVID, preventing the worst of its symptoms. But he also said there remains the risk of developing “long COVID” symptoms, such as general fatigue and difficulty maintaining concentration, even from initially mild cases of the virus, and that the disease continues to be dangerous for people who are immunocompromised.

“There’s a subpopulation which is at most risk and that may merit a separate ruling,” Paez said. “We don’t know the details of if they will be differentiated or not.”

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California and Oregon have already relaxed isolation requirements from COVID. Paez said preliminary data from those states may help to further refine coming CDC policies before they are officially implemented. “There will likely be some data coming out from there pretty soon,” Paez said. “They (the CDC) will be guided by it and I’m sure they’re monitoring all of this.”

Since July 2023, there have been more than 2,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across Hampshire and Franklin counties, according to the DPH. Northampton has had the highest number of confirmed cases among all municipalities within the two counties in that time frame with at least 371 cases, followed by Greenfield with 276 cases. Other municipalities with significantly high cases include Amherst, Belchertown, South Hadley, Easthampton, Orange and Ware. In Holyoke, there have been 765 confirmed cases during that same time period.

The DPH has also reported that since the start of the year, there have been 229 deaths attributed to the virus across the commonwealth.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at