Delta Air Lines has unenviably found itself at the centre of a row over a decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to slash the recommended isolation time for COVID-19 positive cases from 10 days to just five.
Facing an Omicron-induced staffing crisis, the Atlanta-based airline had pleaded with the CDC to cut the isolation time in asymptomatic breakthrough cases with an appropriate ‘test to exit’ protocol in place.
The CDC, bombarded with similar requests from corporate America, went even further and cut the isolation period regardless of vaccination status or test status after five days. CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky noted that the changes were made on the back of new science around how long most people remain infectious.
Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) and often referred to as America’s most powerful flight attendant accepted that the CDC gave a medical explanation for reducing the isolation time but denounced the change saying the fact that it aligned with the same number of days that Delta had suggested was “less than reassuring”.
Is Delta really putting profits ahead of public health? It’s tempting to think so given the CDC’s handling of the situation. After all, would the agency have bothered to consider revising down the isolation time amidst a huge infection surge if it hadn’t been for the pressure from big business?
Maybe not, but if you ignore how we got here, perhaps this is a necessary and welcome change that moves the world one step closer to sustainably ‘living with the virus’.
After all, the virus isn’t going anywhere. Omicron might hopefully be the last variant that we have to worry about so let’s start thinking about realistic harm reduction measures – much in the same way that governments have successfully fought the HIV epidemic.
When we think about how to manage the pandemic, we often lean towards one of two extremes. The first group refuses to accept COVID-19 poses a significant risk for a variety of reasons – such as conspiracy theories that the virus doesn’t exist or misguided beliefs that the virus has morphed into little more than the common cold.
On the other end of the spectrum are what we could call ‘lockdown enthusiasts’ who believe tough restrictions are required to protect public health and who shame and stigmatize anyone who they deem to be ‘selfish’ for not subscribing to their beliefs on how to keep the virus in check.
Often, medical experts assert the need for tough restrictions or protections, while ignoring the fact that two years into this pandemic, human behavior has time and time again proven that this isn’t a sustainable or realistic solution for communities and individuals.
Abstinence undoubtedly works to prevent HIV transmission but it’s completely unrealistic and a policy doomed to failure.
In the middle, the vast majority understand that COVID-19 poses a threat and want to do the right thing but whether through necessity or choice consider the virus a risk that they have to manage and balance against living their lives.
Yes, the isolation time has been reduced mainly for economic reasons but it acknowledges that there’s fat good in telling people to stay at home for 10-days if they’re going to ignore that advice entirely because they have bills to pay or a life that they want to get on and live.
A reduced isolation period isn’t perfect but it’s achievable for most people, reducing harm during the most infectious period and also giving people realistic and achievable advice to help protect other people.
This isn’t March 2020 when lockdowns and physical distancing were some of the only ways to protect people from COVID-19. We now have multiple vaccines that are doing most of the heavy lifting to keep us safe. Sure, they’re far from perfect but let’s use the harm reducing benefits of the vaccines to help move us forward.
Rather than confusing rules and constantly changing restrictions that divide communities and opinions, let’s equip people with simple harm reduction techniques. At this point in the pandemic, if public health agencies have failed to convince some people to take the virus seriously and help protect others, what makes you think their opinion is going to change anytime soon?
Instead, let’s give people methods of protecting themselves without curtailing freedoms.
Masking is a hot button issue that completely dominates the debate around public health measures and drowns out every other sensible message. Rather than relying on people to protect others, we should take a step back and consider a realistic alternative – masks that protect the wearer.
This shouldn’t be controversial. Masks that actually protect the wearer are now in plentiful supply. Subsidising them and supplying vulnerable people with free masks is a sensible and pragmatic strategy that would move the debate along. Yeah sure, making everyone wear a mask is the ‘safest’ option but we’ve tried that and it’s been exhausting.
Vaccine passports are most definitely controversial, especially given the fact that we know you can be vaccinated and very easily pass on and be infected with COVID-19. As a result, crowded indoor spaces like nightclubs and bars have become a high-risk environment for the unvaccinated because they are at a far higher risk of severe disease from COVID-19.
We could shut these spaces to protect the vulnerable or protect the unvaccinated by banning them from these spaces. You can limit the pain and division of vaccine mandates and give people the freedom of choosing whether they want the vaccine – but if they choose not to get vaccinated, then there are clearly consequences to that decision
Less controversial but certainly misunderstood is the role that rapid antigen tests can have in helping us protect ourselves and others. In the near future, isolation for positive cases will be scrapped altogether but rapid testing will give us the information we need to modify our behaviour such as wearing a mask while infectious or avoiding contact with vulnerable people.
And for vulnerable people who, even if fully vaccinated, are still susceptible to severe disease from COVID-19, rapid tests are invaluable as an early warning that will pave the way to quickly start new treatments like monoclonal antibody therapies and pills that are proven to reduce the likelihood of hospitalization or death if started early enough.
By taking the middle ground, public health agencies can cut through the shrill hysteria and conspiracy theories with education and awareness campaigns that promote non-partisan and ideology-free harm reduction measures that are actually effective, achievable and realistic.
On the face of it, cutting the isolation period for positive cases to just five days seems counterproductive and almost certain to make the dire situation we find ourselves in at the moment even worse. The very opposite may actually be true.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.