As leagues rethink protocols, CDC halves COVID-19 isolation guidelines


The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the isolation period for people with COVID-19 on Monday, cutting it in half from 10 days to five, as individuals, communities and businesses — including sports leagues — attempt to navigate this latest stage of the pandemic.

The CDC, as part of its new guidance, also shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine.

The reduction in isolation time comes amid an unprecedented spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which has proven to be less susceptible to vaccines than other variants of the coronavirus, leading to an influx of breakthrough cases — infections in vaccinated peoples — among populations with high vaccination rates.

Taken in tandem, the new guidelines on isolation periods could pave the way for new health and safety protocols in professional sports leagues around the world.

“The Omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, said on Monday. “These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives.”

Though none of the major professional men’s leagues in North America have openly weighed in on the new guidance at this time, the CDC’s recommendations come as the NHL, NBA and NFL are grappling with how to balance profits and safety, with some adopting novel approaches to how they handle positive cases.

Starting Monday, NBA players and coaches who are vaccinated can leave quarantine after six days, down from the previous mandate of 10 days, if testing shows they are no longer at risk to be infectious, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported.

Under the new policy, which was agreed to by the league and the National Basketball Players Association, individuals can still test out of quarantine if they return two negative tests 24 hours apart.

Editor’s Note: The COVID-19 situation, in the NHL and around the world, is constantly evolving. Readers in Canada can consult the country’s public health website for the latest.

That reported agreement closely mirrors recent CDC guidance for health care workers, which saw the agency shorten how long they would be unable to work for from 10 days to seven — as long as they test negative and don’t have symptoms. That recommendation for health care workers came with an isolation reduction, too, cutting it to five days or less as hospitals across America grapple with staffing shortages and burnout.

In the NFL, protocols were recently loosened as well. Only unvaccinated players and those experiencing possible symptoms of COVID-19 are being tested, and asymptomatic vaccinated players can return as soon as they receive two negative tests on the same day, or one negative test along with an antibody test showing they have reached a certain threshold.

Major League Baseball, in the midst of a labour stoppage, has not faced the same questions that the NBA, NFL and NHL have. Some NHL members, in particular, have been vocal about the league’s hesitance to adopt models for its protocols similar to the NFL and NBA.

“I really don’t know what the right thing is,” Steve Yzerman, the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, said earlier in December. “At the end of the day, I think — and now I’m getting political — but at the end of the day our players are testing positive with very little symptoms, if any symptoms at all.

“I don’t see it as a threat to their health at this point. I think you might take it a step further and question why are we even testing, for guys that have no symptoms.”

Yzerman, in his comments, did not acknowledge that asymptomatic players are still able to spread the virus — not only to teammates, but to members of their communities.

There also remains lingering uncertainty over the long-term effects of contracting a breakthrough case of COVID-19, though researchers in Britain found that fully vaccinated people are about 50 per cent less likely to experience long Covid than unvaccinated people.

Beyond the medical challenges, the NHL, more than any other professional men’s league, also faces the unique challenge of cross-border travel and localized regulations that could diverge widely from region to region. In Toronto, for example, the city’s 10-day isolation mandate would supersede any CDC-influenced reduction the NHL made.

Notably, part of leaving isolation early in the NBA and health care industry is the presence of a negative test, something which is not part of the new CDC recommendations for the public. Instead, individuals are being told that at the end of five days, if they have no symptoms, they can return to normal activities. Mask-wearing, however, is mandatory everywhere — even at home around others — for at least five more days.

The CDC said Monday this latest guidance for the general public aligns with a growing body of evidence which indicates that people with COVID-19 are most infectious in the two days before and the three days after symptoms develop. However, its decision has come under question from members of the medical community, with some noting that it remains to be seen how Omicron will impact these findings.

“CDC’s new guidance to drop isolation of positives to five days without a negative test is reckless,” Dr. Michael Mina, a prominent American epidemiologist, immunologist and physician wrote in a Twitter thread. “This is the part that hurts the most.

“The reason they are doing this: ‘The change is motivated by science demonstrating… SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs… generally in the 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and the 2-3 days after’

“That was BEFORE OMICRON. Today, it is OBVIOUS the situation has changed. Ppl are testing earlier b/c symptom onset is early – no longer two days after people are infectious. So now people are staying positive even longer after testing positive, because they find out earlier they are positive.”

Across professional sports, the impact of Omicron has been profoundly felt and NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently said the variant accounted for as much as 90 per cent of the league’s current Covid cases.

Despite the prevalence of breakthrough cases, vaccines are still expected to be a key tool in preventing the worst outcomes of the virus. The C.D.C. has said that two doses of current vaccines offer meaningful protection against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant.

Even amid unprecedented case totals, players have echoed Yzerman’s sentiments. After the Vancouver Canucks returned to practice from the league’s Covid-induced pause, Tyler Myers said he “completely agreed” with what the Red Wings GM said.

“I think he was bang-on,” Myers said. “I completely understand there’s another side of it, where there’s people if it’s not themselves have family members that are more vulnerable to what’s happening around the world right now. Everybody’s in a different situation. I think as players the most frustrating part is seeing what other sports leagues are doing.

“It seems we’re heading the opposite direction of that. I think it’s a little confusing for us.”

The Canucks, who have had five games postponed so far this season, are among the teams most familiar with the effects of COVID-19.

Last spring, they were hit by the Gamma variant and suffered what was at the time among the biggest outbreaks on a professional sports roster.

Now, the total toll of the virus is front of mind.

“I think you’re uncomfortable all the time right now,” Oliver Ekman-Larsson said Monday. “It’s not really about hockey, it’s about mental health, too. It tears you down a little bit just thinking about it all the time. You’re supposed to be playing hockey and do good on the ice, and you have to deal with stuff going around Covid. It’s a lot of stuff that is on your mind, but you kind of learn how to live with it and try to not think about it too much.”

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