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CDC quietly revises coronavirus guidance to downplay importance of testing for asymptomatic people

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Robert Redfield testifies before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on the Trump Administration’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 23, 2020.

Kevin Dietsch | Pool via Reuters

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is no longer recommending coronavirus testing for everyone who’s been exposed to Covid-19, saying people who don’t have symptoms “do not necessarily need a test.”

The agency quietly revised its testing guidance for asymptomatic individuals Monday, advising people who are vulnerable to the virus to get tested if they have been within 6 feet of an infected individual for at least 15 minutes. 

The agency previously recommended testing for anyone with a “recent known or suspected exposure” to the virus even if they did not have symptoms. The CDC’s previous guidance cited “the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission” as a reason why people without symptoms who were exposed to the virus be “quickly identified and tested.” Numerous studies have shown that people who don’t have symptoms can still carry and spread the virus — even in the pre-symptomatic stage a few days before symptoms appear or if they are asymptomatic and never develop 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,” the CDC’s site now says. “A negative test does not mean you will not develop an infection from the close contact or contract an infection at a later time.”

The agency, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, also added new language referring to asymptomatic individuals as “healthy people,” language that’s frequently used in social media posts protesting the use of masks. 

“In areas where there are limited number of new cases, State or local public health officials may request to test a small number of asymptomatic ‘healthy people,’ particularly from vulnerable populations,” the new guidance reads.

The CDC’s updated guidance still acknowledges that people can still carry and spread the virus, even if they don’t have symptoms and feel healthy. In the CDC’s pandemic planning scenarios, the agency says its “current best estimate” is that up to 50% of spread of the virus occurs before patients begin to experience symptoms.

Some epidemiologists criticized the change in guidance because of the role that asymptomatic and asymptomatic people are suspected to play in spreading the virus.

“This makes no sense. People without symptoms account for up to 50% of transmission,” tweeted Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University the former health commissioner of Baltimore. “We need MORE testing, not less.”

The updated guidance also removed a line on the importance of testing and surveillance to the U.S. national response plan.

The guidance previously read: “Testing is a fundamental part of the United States SARS-CoV-2 Surveillance Plan, which uses multiple surveillance systems and epidemiology networks to monitor the progression and impact of SARS-CoV-2 spread in the United States.”

The guidance was updated “to reflect current evidence and best public health practices,” Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir, who leads the Trump administration’s testing effort, said in a statement. 

“The updated Guidance places an emphasis on testing individuals with symptomatic illness, those with a significant exposure or for vulnerable populations, including residents and staff in nursing homes or long term care facilities, critical infrastructure workers, healthcare workers and first responders, and those individuals (who may be asymptomatic) when prioritized by public health officials,” he said. 

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