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New CDC Guidelines Say Asymptomatic People Don't Need COVID-19 Tests. That Worries Health Experts

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New CDC Guidelines Say Asymptomatic People Don't Need COVID-19 Tests. That Worries Health Experts
CDC Director Robert Redfield testifies during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis hearing on July 31, 2020 in Washington, DC. Erin Scott-Pool / Getty Images

Health experts are sounding the alarm about new testing guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued earlier this week.


The CDC overhauled its guidelines and said that people who are not displaying symptoms of COVID-19 infection from the novel coronavirus do not need testing. That includes asymptomatic people who have also had exposure to the virus, according to The New York Times.

The new guidelines say:

If you have been in close contact (within 6 feet) of a person with a COVID-19 infection for at least 15 minutes but do not have symptoms:

  • You do not necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable individual or your health care provider or State or local public health officials recommend you take one.

And:

If you do not have COVID-19 symptoms and have not been in close contact with someone known to have a COVID-19 infection:

  • You do not need a test.

The list of people who do not necessarily need a test is far-reaching, including people who have been in high transmission areas.

These new guidelines are a departure from the previous stance. According to CNN, the CDC website said previously: "Testing is recommended for all close contacts of persons with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Because of the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, it is important that contacts of individuals with SARS-CoV-2 infection be quickly identified and tested."

Health experts raised the alarm about these new guidelines, noting that people tend to be most contagious during the asymptomatic period when they first contract the virus. During that time, it is especially important to identify and isolate people who have the virus to control potential spread.

The CDC even noted in its pandemic planning scenarios that 40 percent of infections are asymptomatic and 50 percent of virus transmissions take place before symptoms are detected, according to CNN.

"This is potentially dangerous," said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious disease physician in Palo Alto, California, to The New York Times. She added that narrowing the testing criteria to only people with obvious COVID-19 symptoms means "you're not looking for a lot of people who are potential spreaders of disease. I feel like this is going to make things worse."

The new guidelines are a curious departure from the advice of many health experts who have said that more widespread and frequent testing is necessary to identify potential clusters. That advice is particularly resonant for vulnerable and disenfranchised communities that have had limited access to testing, but high rates of infection, according to The New York Times.

"I'm concerned that these recommendations suggest someone who has had substantial exposure to a person with COVID-19 now doesn't need to get tested," said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University who was previously Baltimore's health commissioner, to CNN. "This is key to contact tracing, especially given that up to 50% of all transmission is due to people who do not have symptoms. One wonders why these guidelines were changed — is it to justify continued deficit of testing?"

"I think it's bizarre," said Daniel Larremore, a mathematician and infectious diseases modeler at the University of Colorado Boulder, to The New York Times. "Any move right now to reduce levels of testing by changing guidelines is a step in the wrong direction."

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