Delta asks CDC for shorter quarantine time for breakthrough COVID-19 cases

Delta asks CDC for shorter quarantine time for breakthrough COVID-19 cases
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian is asking the CDC to scale back its 10-day quarantine time for vaccinated people who contract COVID-19. The existing recommendation of 10 days of isolation can negatively affect the airline’s operations. The airlines will likely experience a shortage of workers, given how quickly the Omicron variant is spreading.

Bastian sent a letter to the CDC chief Rochelle Wallensky on Tuesday asking that the quarantine guidance be shortened to a five-day quarantine recommendation for vaccinated people. He added that airline employees are considered essential workers. The current guidance was developed in 2020 before vaccines and treatment were developed. He anticipates the possibility of a major disruption in business and a shortage of workers. Over 90% of Delta’s workers are fully vaccinated.

This guidance was developed in 2020 when the pandemic was in a different phase without effective vaccines and treatments. At Delta, over 90% of our workforce are fully vaccinated, and those rates are increasing daily. Our employees represent an essential workforce to enable Americans who need to travel domestically and internationally. With the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the 10-day isolation for those who are fully vaccinated may significantly impact our workforce and operations. Similar to healthcare, police, fire, and public transportation workforces, the Omicron surge may exacerbate shortages and create significant disruptions. Further, all airline personnel are required to mask at airports and on airplanes.

Current data suggest that Omicron is 25-50% more contagious, and likely less virulent, and associated with more mild disease particularly among individuals who are fully vaccinated. Further, Omicron is associated with a shorter incubation period and infectious period among the fully vaccinated.

To address the potential impact of the current isolation policy safely, we propose a 5-day isolation from symptom onset for those who experience a breakthrough infection. Individuals would be able to end isolation with an appropriate testing protocol. As part of this policy change, we would be interested to partner with CDC and collect empirical data.

The CEO sweetens his request by expressing interest in partnering with CDC and collecting data. What does that look like?

The current guidance is that a person who develops symptoms is quarantined for 10-days or, in the case of asymptomatic cases, the first positive test result. That is now being looked at for a potential change, as Dr. Fauci said yesterday morning on CNN. He spoke about shortening the quarantine time.

However, Fauci said that the guidelines should be reassessed for people who test positive but who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic so that they can get back to work sooner.

“For example, if you get a healthcare worker who is infected and without any symptoms at all, you don’t want to keep that person out of work too very long. Because particularly if we get a run on hospital beds and the need for health care personnel, that’s something that at least will be considered,” Fauci said.

Health experts are concerned about the Omicron variant that is currently being spread resulting in 73% of all COVID-19 cases. The Delta variant made up 99.5% of cases as recently as the end of November, for an idea of how quickly the Omicron variant is spreading. However, so far those fully vaccinated who become infected with breakthrough cases are not as ill as with the Delta variant. Health experts worried the outbreak will be worse as people travel and socialize during Christmas and New Year holidays.

Last week four CEOs of major airlines testified before Congress. Two of them, one being Bastian, asked that consideration be made to end the mask mandate on planes. They pointed to new air filtration systems installed at the beginning of the pandemic to mitigate its spread during air travel.

We’ve come to a time during the pandemic when we can at least begin a discussion on easing up on such strict guidelines. In most parts of the country, people are using their own best judgment and going about their lives. Even Fauci, the unelected face of authoritarian control on health care, admits it is probably time to make some changes. If we are to follow the science, CDC and Fauci can’t expect us to live under their thumb forever, especially with COVID-19 variants continuing to present as less harsh, as Omicron is doing.

Today a leaked study from the U.K. Health Security Agency (similar to the CDC) is due to publish its “early real-world data on the severity of the disease before Christmas.” Politico London Playbook reports that Omicron is causing a milder disease than Delta in the U.K. The report has a mixed outlook, though, because while the variant is milder overall, it isn’t necessarily mild enough to avoid large numbers of hospitalizations. If someone becomes severely ill, it is likely that hospitalization will be needed and death is possible.

The Omicron variant is still too new to have a lot of real data yet and that brings a lot of uncertainty with both medical professionals and the rest of us. The U.K. report says that a booster shot “does significantly reduce the chance of both symptomatic infection and ending up in hospital.” We’ll see how the CDC responds to the Delta request to half the time of quarantine.

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