CDC and Washington state officials look at shortening quarantine

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering shortening the recommended quarantine period from 14 days to 10 days or fewer, and Washington state health officials said Monday that their epidemiologists are looking at it too.

But it is not a decision to be made lightly; the shorter time period would likely require a negative COVID-19 test at the end of it, and tests are already in high demand during the current surge.

“The volume has just been so outrageous,” Dr. Geoffrey Baird, with UW Medicine, said. “We went up from doing four thousand a day for most of, say, I think September, to eight, nine thousand a day in the last few weeks.”

Baird is the interim chair of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the UW School of Medicine. He also oversees all of UW Medicine’s clinical laboratory testing, including the COVID-19 testing lab.

Baird said getting the length of quarantine right is kind of like a math problem.

“Do you wait a very long time, but people might not do it because it’s not going to be well accepted? Or do you have a much shorter one, which may actually let a few people who are still infectious out of quarantine but, nonetheless, be something that most people will do?” he said.

And what about adding a test so that people can leave quarantine early?

“What could that possibly do in terms of putting a stress on our testing capabilities in Washington?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

“It depends on a lot of things,” Baird said. “We have to, No. 1, see what are the actual volumes.”

There is a possible Christmas rush for tests ahead, as well as whether UW Medicine is getting enough testing supplies from vendors.

The surge in infections is also impacting how efficiently the lab can get results. But it can try to mitigate this by using a technique called pooling that allows testing personnel to stretch out the supplies.

“We actually take several samples together and combine them and test that combined sample,” Baird said. “And if that test is negative, then we can rule out all of the samples. … That approach saves a lot of time if very few people are positive because most of the tests are negative, right? But if more than 10% are positive, you end up actually doing more testing.”

Baird said right now, the positive test rate is getting very close to 10%.