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What do new public health guidelines from the CDC mean for your family?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

There've been a lot of changes in recent days to all the guidance around vaccines and boosters and also COVID testing. The CDC still has yet to make its recommendation, but the Food and Drug Administration has signed off on Pfizer booster shots for kids as young as 12. And both agencies have signed off on shortening the amount of time to wait before getting a booster to five months. The CDC is considering adding a testing recommendation to its new guidance on isolation.

Dr. Leana Wen is an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. She joins us now to help make sense of all the changes. Doctor, let's just jump on in. The CDC has received a lot of criticism from some public health officials when it shortened guidance about isolating after a positive test, rolling it back from 10 to five days, and it did not recommend that people get tested before going back into the world. So what are your thoughts, Doctor, on requiring a negative COVID test for people who tested positive and now wanting to end that isolation?

LEANA WEN: Well, I actually think in general that the CDC made the right move, and the reason is we are facing the collapse of our critical infrastructure. We have so many people who are being diagnosed with COVID or who were exposed that a lot of places are running out of firefighters. We don't have police officers. Health care workers are not able to tend to their patients. And so I think the - if the reason that the CDC is stating for their change is that this is out of necessity, that it's not necessarily because of science, although the science does also back it up, but it's actually because of necessity - we have to have our society continue to function - then I think that this is the right move.

That said, I do also think that having a testing option, to be able to test out of isolation - basically, this idea of test to return, just like we're having tests to stay in schools - tests to return back to work is even better. It gives an additional level of reassurance. And I also hope that the CDC will specifically clarify, then, what they are referring to for the shortened isolation, again, is out of necessity for essential workers. That's very different from if you want to visit Grandma.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

WEN: If you want to visit Grandma in a nursing home, definitely do not just rely on five days. Make sure that you're testing twice, out of isolation, before going to visit particularly vulnerable individuals.

MARTINEZ: So what you're saying - not maybe scientifically sound or most effective ways in dealing with COVID, but a practical middle ground for where we are in this country right now.

WEN: That's exactly right because public health is not just about the science. Yes, you have to get the science right, but you also have to meet people where they are with what they're able to tolerate. And frankly, 10 days of isolation is serving as a powerful disincentive for individuals, for workers, for employers to test...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

WEN: ...Because they don't want their - they don't want workers to be out for so long. And so we need to be doing everything we can to make things tolerable, especially given how widespread omicron really is.

MARTINEZ: Doctor, on tests, they're not, you know, easy to find right now. So what happens if someone's isolation period has ended but they can't find a test?

WEN: Exactly, and this is the reason why I think the CDC should be clear that you should do a test out of isolation when possible, but when it's not possible, continue to wear a mask, a high-quality mask, when you're out of isolation, but that, again, this is done out of practicality. I actually think this is similar to the conversation that we were having around masks back in March 2020. The CDC should have said at that point that everybody should wear a mask, but we're not able to do so because masks are in limited supply. In this case, I think they should also say everybody should do a test coming out of isolation, but if you're unable to do so due to limited supply, you can still leave for essential jobs.

MARTINEZ: Now, the FDA has authorized booster shots for kids as young as 12, but if most vaccinated kids get mild symptoms or maybe no symptoms, Doctor, do they really need the booster shots?

WEN: I think there will be a lot of parents of teens and teens themselves who really want to get a booster. There are teens with asthma, with obesity, with other chronic medical conditions who will get the booster as soon as it's available to them. And so I think that's the key - that we should allow those who want to prevent symptomatic infection to get the booster dose.

MARTINEZ: Is omicron's speed of its spread, is that - could that necessarily be a good thing, possibly, to get this over with as quickly as possible?

WEN: I think there are some people and a school of thought that says, hey, if we're all going to get this thing anyway, wouldn't we rather get a milder variant? And so let's just let this rip through our population. I think the trouble here is while on the individual level, if you are vaccinated and boosted, the risk to you is low - the problem is when there are so many people getting sick at once, even a small proportion of people getting hospitalized, when our hospitals are already on the brink, could really push them over the edge, and we could see a total collapse of our health care infrastructure, which is very close in many parts of the country.

And so I think a practical middle ground is possible. I'm not saying let's have lockdowns or for people to hunker down, but let's require masks in all indoor settings. Let's require proof of vaccination for restaurants, bars and other venues. And let's protect the most vulnerable, including expediting vaccine development for children under 5.

MARTINEZ: Public health professor and emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen. Thank you very much.

WEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.