The US-based Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention has evolved a new protocol for living with COVID-19 and moved away from restrictions like social distancing, quarantine and no longer recommends staying at least six feet away from other people to reduce risk of exposure. It has also relaxed norms for screening people with no symptoms and updated COVID-19 protocols in schools, eliminating a recommendation for test-to-stay after potential exposure. What do these revised guidelines mean for a population-dense country like India? Should we be looking at more work-friendly guidelines ourselves?
What do the new CDC guidelines say?
CDC has eased restrictions, freeing schools and businesses from the onus of requiring unvaccinated people exposed to the virus to quarantine at home. Contact tracing also can be limited to hospitals and certain high-risk group living situations such as nursing homes. They also do not stress on the use of regular testing to screen for COVID-19, except in high risk settings like nursing homes and prisons. The new guidelines do not advise quarantining people, who have been exposed to COVID-19 but are not infected. However, as a precaution, CDC has said that avoiding crowded areas and maintaining a distance from others are strategies that people may want to consider in order to reduce their risk.
Why have the new guidelines been issued?
“We know that COVID-19 is here to stay,” Greta Massetti, a CDC epidemiologist, said at a news briefing on Thursday. “High levels of population immunity, due to vaccination and previous infection, and the many tools that we have available to protect people from severe illness and death have put us in a different place.” Experts in the country like Dr Sanjay Pujari, member of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) task force on COVID-19, said that easing restrictions has been done time and again based on the epidemiological trajectory. “While it is known that CDC has done several flip-flops even before the Omicron wave in the US, there were recommendations to ease restrictions,” Dr Pujari said.
Why are these changes significant?
“The changes are a sharp move away from measures such as social distancing requirements and quarantining, which had polarised much of the country, and effectively acknowledge the way many Americans have been navigating the pandemic for some time. The agency’s action comes as children across the country return to school and many offices have reopened,” a report in the New York Times has said. The agency has been working for a while on the new guidance, which builds on previous recommendations issued in February, when the agency shortened isolation times for many Americans. The changes shift much of the responsibility for risk reduction from institutions to individuals, according to the report.
What should India do?
This is the most crucial question, considering we are a population-dense nation. But then there is a fair bit of immunity due to vaccination and previous infections. According to the Union Health Ministry, the cumulative Covid vaccination coverage exceeds Rs 207 crore. Over 3.96 crore first dose vaccines have been administered for the 12-14 age group. At present, the active number of Covid cases is at 1.23 lakh. At least 16,561 new cases were reported in the last 24 hours according to an ICMR report and the weekly positivity rate is at 4.88 per cent.
But we are still dealing with sporadic surges like the one in Delhi. Said Dr Pujari, “Restrictions range from total lockdown to immediate measures during super-spreading events. In the current scenario of a surge, it would be extremely prudent to wear masks and avoid large indoor gatherings. The festival season is around the corner and we are unsure of how Covid variants will play out. There has also been incomplete third dose vaccination and hence we need to be extremely careful in large gatherings and closed indoor settings. But in open spaces, one can breathe a little easy. Take the booster shot.”
However, he added, “At this stage of the pandemic, there is an absolute no-no to school closure. The risk-to-benefit ratio has to be considered where benefits have to be accounted for. So good ventilation in classrooms is a must apart from ensuring that a sick child is sent home. COVID-19 has not been found to be a matter of concern for children at any age.”