Omikron variant: shorter quarantine – does that make sense?

As of: 12/29/2021 4:41 p.m.

Corona infected people are often no longer as contagious after a few days. With a view to the omicron wave in particular, there are discussions about shortening the quarantine period. What are the pros and cons?

By Veronika Simon, SWR science editor

Five days of quarantine and another five days of consistent mask wear – these rules will apply in the future in the USA for people who have tested positive for the coronavirus but have not developed any symptoms of the disease. This was announced by the US disease protection agency CDC and thus halved the duration of the quarantine.

In Germany, too, there is a discussion about whether it is necessary to isolate everyone who has tested positive for 14 days. The argument: Due to the very contagious Omicron variant of the virus, so many people could otherwise be in quarantine at the same time that public life and the infrastructure could collapse.

According to the Frankfurt virologist Martin Stürmer, this discussion is not new. “This is a double-edged sword: If you shorten the quarantine, you can be more productive. But you also risk infections that could be prevented through longer isolation. You have to weigh this risk carefully.”

Contagious for different lengths of time

How long you can infect other people as an infected person is not always the same. That also depends on how severe the disease is. People with a mild or symptom-free course are usually less contagious than patients who are seriously ill or have an immunodeficiency.

So far, however, it has been assumed that infected people are most contagious in the days shortly before and shortly after the onset of the first symptoms. The US agency CDC also relies on this assessment when shortening the isolation: “Most of the Sars-CoV-2 transmissions occur at the beginning of the disease process, usually in the one or two days before or two to three days after the onset of symptoms . “

This has been known for some time with the previous virus variants, explains Wolfgang Preiser, Professor of Virology at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town. He is researching the omicron variant of the virus, which has now established itself in many countries and is also spreading in Germany.

Virologist anticipates a shorter infectious period

It is not yet possible to say with certainty whether this pattern will also show up with the new virus variant. So far, he does not know of any studies that have specifically dealt with when one is most contagious when infected with Omikron, said Preiser. “A shorter infectious period should be the rule because many already have basic immunity – either through a vaccination or after surviving an infection.”

The shortening of the quarantine is therefore not a reaction to new scientific findings, but an adjustment to the current situation and its practical requirements.

Play it safe with the applicable rules

In Germany, you are playing it safe with the quarantine rules that have previously been in force, explains the virologist Stürmer. Because even in people with a mild or symptom-free course, it is possible that they are still contagious after a week.

However, if a shorter isolation of infected people is necessary for organizational reasons, additional safety measures can be taken here as well: “For example, by carrying out a PCR test after a week of quarantine before the isolation is ended,” said Stürmer.

This is how it works in Israel: Its government had already decided in July that those affected can free themselves from quarantine after seven days with a negative test.

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