Duration of Isolation and Precautions for Adults with COVID-19

By  | November 18, 2020 | Filed under: News

ATLANTA, GA-The length of time a person has immunity to COVID-19 remains under investigation. Based on what we know from other related human coronaviruses, people appear to become susceptible to reinfection around 90 days after initially being infected. For people who have recovered from COVID-19, a positive COVID-19 test without new symptoms during the 90 days after initial infection more likely represents persistent shedding of viral RNA than reinfection. If such a person remains asymptomatic (or does not have symptoms) during this 90-day period, then any re-testing will not likely provide useful information, even if the person had close contact with an infected person.

Accumulating evidence supports ending isolation and precautions for persons with COVID-19 using a symptom-based strategy. This update incorporates recent evidence to inform the duration of isolation and precautions recommended to prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to others, while limiting unnecessary prolonged isolation and unnecessary use of laboratory testing resources.

Key findings are summarized here.

  1. Concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 RNA measured in upper respiratory specimens decline after onset of symptoms (CDC, unpublished data, 2020; Midgley et al., 2020; Young et al., 2020; Zou et al., 2020; Wölfel et al., 2020; van Kampen et al., 2020).
  2. The likelihood of recovering replication-competent virus also declines after onset of symptoms. For patients with mild to moderate COVID-19, replication-competent virus has not been recovered after 10 days following symptom onset (CDC, unpublished data, 2020; Wölfel et al., 2020; Arons et al., 2020; Bullard et al., 2020; Lu et al., 2020; personal communication with Young et al., 2020; Korea CDC, 2020). Recovery of replication-competent virus between 10 and 20 days after symptom onset has been documented in some persons with severe COVID-19 that, in some cases, was complicated by immunocompromised state (van Kampen et al., 2020). However, in this series of patients, it was estimated that 88% and 95% of their specimens no longer yielded replication-competent virus after 10 and 15 days, respectively, following symptom onset.
  3. A large contact tracing study demonstrated that high-risk household and hospital contacts did not develop infection if their exposure to a case patient started 6 days or more after the case patient’s illness onset (Cheng et al., 2020).
  4. Although replication-competent virus was not isolated 3 weeks after symptom onset, recovered patients can continue to have SARS-CoV-2 RNA detected in their upper respiratory specimens for up to 12 weeks (Korea CDC, 2020; Li et al., 2020; Xiao et al, 2020). Investigation of 285 “persistently positive” persons, which included 126 persons who had developed recurrent symptoms, found no secondary infections among 790 contacts attributable to contact with these case patients. Efforts to isolate replication-competent virus from 108 of these case patients were unsuccessful (Korea CDC, 2020).
  5. Specimens from patients who recovered from an initial COVID-19 illness and subsequently developed new symptoms and retested positive by RT-PCR did not have replication-competent virus detected (Korea CDC, 2020; Lu et al., 2020). The risk of reinfection may be lower in the first 3 months after initial infection, based on limited evidence from another betacoronavirus (HCoV-OC43), the genus to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs (Kiyuka et al, 2018).
  6. To date, reports of reinfection have been infrequent. Similar to other human coronaviruses where studies have demonstrated reinfection, the probability of SARS-CoV-2 reinfection is expected to increase with time after recovery from initial infection due to waning immunity and possibly genetic drift. Risk of reinfection depends on the likelihood of re-exposure to infectious cases of COVID-19. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we expect to see more cases of reinfection.

The current evidence includes the following caveats:

  • In a recent study of skilled nursing facility workers followed prospectively for asymptomatic infection, one of 48 infected staff had a nasopharyngeal swab which was weakly positive on a single-passage plaque assay more than 20 days after initial diagnosis; however, the specimen was not subjected to serial passage to demonstrate the presence of replication-competent virus (Quicke et al., 2020).
  • In one case report, a person with mild illness provided specimens that yielded replication-competent virus for up to 18 days after symptom onset (Liu et al., 2020).
  • Data currently available are derived from adults; equivalent data from children and infants are not presently available.
  • More data are needed concerning viral shedding in some situations, including in immunocompromised persons.

Assessment

Available data indicate that persons with mild to moderate COVID-19 remain infectious no longer than 10 days after symptom onset. Persons with more severe to critical illness or severe immunocompromise likely remain infectious no longer than 20 days after symptom onset.  Recovered persons can continue to shed detectable SARS-CoV-2 RNA in upper respiratory specimens for up to 3 months after illness onset, albeit at concentrations considerably lower than during illness, in ranges where replication-competent virus has not been reliably recovered and infectiousness is unlikely. The etiology of this persistently detectable SARS-CoV-2 RNA has yet to be determined. Studies have not found evidence that clinically recovered persons with persistence of viral RNA have transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to others. These findings strengthen the justification for relying on a symptom based, rather than test-based strategy for ending isolation of these patients, so that persons who are by current evidence no longer infectious are not kept unnecessarily isolated and excluded from work or other responsibilities.

The duration and robustness of immunity to SARS-CoV-2 remains under investigation. Based on what we know from other related human coronaviruses, people appear to become susceptible to reinfection around 90 days after onset of infection. To date, reinfection appears to be uncommon during the initial 90 days after symptom onset of the preceding infection (Annex: Quarantine of Persons Recovered from Laboratory-diagnosed SARS-CoV-2 Infection with Subsequent Re-Exposure). Thus, for persons recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection, a positive PCR without new symptoms during the 90 days after illness onset more likely represents persistent shedding of viral RNA than reinfection.

  • If such a person remains asymptomatic during this 90-day period, then any re-testing is unlikely to yield useful information, even if the person had close contact with an infected person.
  • If such a person becomes symptomatic during this 90-day period and an evaluation fails to identify a diagnosis other than SARS-CoV-2 infection (e.g., influenza), then the person may warrant evaluation for SARS-CoV-2 reinfection in consultation with an infectious disease or infection control expert. Isolation may be warranted during this evaluation, particularly if symptoms developed after close contact with an infected person.

Correlates of immunity to SARS-CoV-2 infection have not been established. Specifically, the utility of serologic testing to establish the absence or presence of infection or reinfection remains undefined.

Media Release/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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