WEST LEBANON — In part to keep the economy rolling amid the ongoing COVID-19 surge, federal and Twin State health officials have reduced the length of isolation and quarantine for people who test positive.
Some Upper Valley employers, such as King Arthur Baking in Norwich and schools, have already adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new, reduced isolation timeline of five days, which marks a reduction from the previous 10-day requirement. But some health care providers are going to stick with the longer isolation periods, as long as staffing levels allow.
“While we have no direct experience yet, we think, on the margin, it will help with staffing levels,” Ralph Carlton, King Arthur’s co-CEO, said in a Thursday email.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the changes late last month amid the increase in cases of COVID-19 across the country and concerns about the impact of those cases on the operation of schools, businesses and health care facilities. In announcing the changes, the CDC also pointed to the negative effects of isolation and quarantine on people’s mental health as the second anniversary of the start of the pandemic in the U.S. approaches. Vermont adopted the new guidelines last week and New Hampshire did so this week.
“There’s a need to find a better way to live with the virus,” Dr. Benjamin Chan, New Hampshire’s state epidemiologist, said in a Thursday news conference with Gov. Chris Sununu.
Under the new guidelines, people who test positive are asked to isolate for five days, a reduction from the previous 10, and end isolation only after going at least 24 hours without a fever. The Vermont Department of Health also asks that people test negative on two antigen tests before leaving isolation. People who test positive also are asked to wear a mask for at least 10 days.
Health officials also are reducing the required quarantine for those who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Close contacts who are either unvaccinated or haven’t gotten a booster even though they’re due for one are required to quarantine for five days. Those who are up to date on their vaccinations are not required to quarantine, but are urged to get a test on day five following exposure.
Chan described the new guidelines as “the next step in the pandemic” intended to lessen the burden of isolation and quarantine and their impacts on schools, businesses and mental health. The goal is to attempt to control the spread of the virus while also allowing people to get back to normal.
The Lebanon School District will follow DHHS’ new guidance, said Superintendent Joanne Roberts.
“The impact of the new guidance will be that, if the outlined conditions are met, staff and students can potentially return to school sooner,” she said.
But David Baker, superintendent of the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, said he didn’t think shortening the isolation and quarantine periods would be enough to make a difference for overburdened school staff.
“I don’t think it will matter that much,” he said. “I think it is more about our capacity to continue the pace of contact tracing, phone calls, Test To Stay — something has to give.”
Meanwhile, some Upper Valley health care providers are planning to stick with more conservative guidelines of 10 days for symptomatic people as long as they have sufficient workers to manage it.
The CDC released separate new isolation and quarantine guidance for health care workers, which gives health care organizations a range of options depending on the infected worker’s vaccination status, degree of illness and the staffing levels at the organization.
Hanover Terrace Health & Rehabilitation Center, which suffered a large outbreak in late 2020, is sticking with the conservative options provided on the CDC’s grid, Administrator Martha Ilsley said. An employee with a COVID infection, whether vaccinated, unvaccinated or boosted, would stay out of work for a minimum of 10 days, more if symptomatic. Those who are exposed to a positive case are staying out for 10 days or testing back in after seven days, she said.
“We are doing everything possible to attempt to keep our residents, staff and families safe,” Ilsley said. “We do not want to go through an outbreak again, which is why we are remaining very cautious.”
Similarly, Patricia Horn, the executive director of Cedar Hill Continuing Care Community in Windsor, said she also plans to stick with the more conservative isolation and quarantine requirements.
“My feeling as an administrator of an assisted living and a nursing home (is) if I can avoid going to that level where I bring people back earlier, I would prefer to,” she said.
The same is true for Lake Sunapee Region VNA & Hospice, which plans to require the 10-day isolation for workers who test positive, according to Caitlin Barden, the organization’s chief clinical officer.
“We feel this will help maintain the overall health of our team and allow us to continue to meet the needs of the community in as safe a way as possible,” Barden said.
But some hospital officials said they do plan to reduce the required isolation period for workers in certain circumstances.
“Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital will generally follow the new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that permits health care workers who test positive or have a close contact with a positive person to quarantine for five days instead of the previously recommended 10 days,” said Peter Glenshaw, a spokesman.
But he added that each employee’s situation will be evaluated on “a case-by-case basis” to ensure safety of employees and patients.
“We believe this guidance will provide some help with staffing needs,” Glenshaw said. “Ultimately the best way to address our staffing needs and, more importantly, the health needs of the community is to have enough people vaccinated so this pandemic ends.”
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3213.