CDC Keeps New Testing Guidelines Despite State Backlash

By: - August 27, 2020 12:00 am

Motorists at a COVID-19 testing site at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Amid soaring demand and a nationwide shortage of testing, the CDC issued controversial guidance on who should get tested. Kirby Lee via The Associated Press

In an about-face reportedly prompted by the Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week quietly narrowed its guidelines for COVID-19 testing — upending previous recommendations that all people exposed to the virus should get tested, whether they have symptoms or not.

Later in the week, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield walked back the guidelines somewhat in a media statement, saying, “Everyone who needs a Covid-19 test, can get a test. Everyone who wants a test does not necessarily need a test; the key is to engage the needed public health community in the decision with the appropriate follow-up action.”

The new recommendations, which were still on the CDC site late Thursday, said people who aren’t showing symptoms don’t necessarily need to be tested, even if they have been within 6 feet of someone known to have COVID-19.

When the new guidance emerged, Democratic governors in at least five states — California, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina and Washington state — promptly rejected it, as did multiple national medical experts.

But at least one state health official agreed with the CDC. In Alabama, state health officer Dr. Scott Harris explained in a local Fox News affiliate interview that the CDC’s new guidelines were in line with the state’s own policies.

“In fact, that [is] what we’ve been saying all along. Some of that is related to our capacity for testing. We just can’t test everyone,” he said in the WBRC news report. “The main reason is that if you’re in close contact, our advice to you is that you need to go home for 14 days and stay away from people.”

Scientific evidence shows that at least half of all transmissions of COVID-19 come from people who do not exhibit symptoms. National medical experts say people who think they may have been exposed should get a test.

According to the CDC’s new recommendations, “If you have been in close contact (within 6 feet) of a person with a COVID-19 infection for at least 15 minutes but do not have 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.” 

Likewise, the CDC guidelines say that testing isn’t necessarily needed even “if you are in a high COVID-19 transmission area and have attended a public or private gathering of more than 10 people (without widespread mask wearing or physical distancing).”

Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo slammed the new guidelines.

“I’ve spoken to health experts from around the globe,” Cuomo said. “None of them will say that this makes any sense from a health point of view. The only plausible rationale is they want fewer people taking tests because, as the president has said, if we don’t take tests you won’t know that people are COVID-positive and the number of COVID-positive people will come down,” according to a transcript of his statement.  

Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear reportedly called the CDC guidance “reckless” and “inexplicable,” vowing that “in Kentucky we’re going to continue to do the right thing,” according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Dr. Susan R. Bailey, president of the American Medical Association, wrote in an Aug. 26 statement: “Months into this pandemic, we know COVID-19 is spread by asymptomatic people. Suggesting that people without symptoms, who have known exposure to COVID-positive individuals, do not need testing is a recipe for community spread and more spikes in coronavirus.

“When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updates a guidance the agency should provide a rationale for the change. We urge CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services to release the scientific justification for this change in testing guidelines.”

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.