For those who contract COVID for the first time or who test positive following updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer, there may be some uncertainty about what to do next.
If you had COVID previously and followed the proper guidance, you’ll need to take note as the current recommendations aren’t the same as before. The CDC last changed its quarantine and isolation guidance in August.
First, if you were exposed or are experiencing symptoms, you’ll want to make sure you take a COVID test. In some cases, taking multiple tests may be the best option.
“First and foremost, you need to make sure that it is COVID,” Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Tuesday.
She noted, however, that while a positive test does in fact indicate you have COVID, a negative result may not mean you don’t.
“What I tell people is a negative at-home test is probably negative, unless you’re testing too early – meaning that the virus hasn’t yet had a chance to build up in your body,” Arwady said. “The good news is, when the virus hasn’t had a chance to build up in your body, you’re less likely to be spreading COVID yet, but nevertheless, it means that the test can stay negative and this omicron variant moves so fast that we are seeing sometimes people it can take a day or two for those tests to turn positive. But I will take any positive though… we don’t see false positives on the at-home test, just to be clear. So any positive is a positive.”
For those who test negative but have symptoms and were exposed, you should mask until you’ve proven otherwise, Arwady said.
So what should you do if the result is positive?
Under the CDC guidelines, anyone who tests positive should isolate from others, regardless of vaccination status. If you feel ill and believe you have COVID, but have yet to receive your test results, isolation is recommended as well.
After testing positive, you should stay home and isolated from others for at least five days, with the first day of symptoms being day 0. The five-day window is when those who have the virus are believed to be the most infectious, so wearing a high-quality mask is advised at times when you need to be around others, according to health officials.
Those with symptoms may want to contact their health care provider, Arwady said, adding that some treatments like Paxlovid must be administered within the first five days of infection in order to be effective.
If after five days you are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of medication, and your symptoms are improving, or you never had symptoms, you may end isolation. You should wear a high-quality mask through day 10, however.
“Once you have a positive COVID diagnosis you must stay home for a minimum of five days – isolating, not spreading COVID,” Arwady said. “Those are the times are the most likely to be spreading it. Then, if you are feeling better day six through 10, you can be out and about as long as you’re wearing a mask – and that means a mask in all settings.”
What if you’re still not feeling well? Arwady said those who aren’t feeling well should stay home as long as they are unwell during that 10-day period.
“After 10 days you aren’t very likely to be potentially spreading COVID at that point,” she said.
For those who do test positive, the CDC recommends isolation for the first five days after symptom onset, which is when you’re likely to be the most infectious. After that, a well-fitting mask should be worn through day 10.
For those who don’t currently have COVID, experts are urging the new bivalent COVID booster shots.
The booster shot, authorized by Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the CDC in early September, is designed to fight both the omicron variant and original COVID strains. Unlike previous booster shots, anyone over the age of 12 years old who has received a primary vaccine series is eligible for the new shot.