Europe risks facing a critical labor shortage as the Omicron coronavirus variant rises across the block, and infected and tracked individuals retreat into isolation.
While countries are reintroducing containment measures such as mandatory masks in Paris to try to limit infections and protect hospitals, they are also reassessing isolation rules in an attempt to address infection risks while mitigating the effects of stopped vital services and the impact on the economy.
Greece is the first country in Europe to announce that it is moving to the lowest level of five-day quarantine for infected people, halving the period from 10 days earlier, the government announced on Thursday.
The Mediterranean country is keeping pace with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also announced a new five-day isolation period for infected asymptomatic people this week.
Elsewhere in Europe, Britain moved to one seven days isolation period for infected just before Christmas. Spain and Ireland have also just reduced their isolation periods to seven days from 10, while Italy has just scrapped quarantine for close contacts if a person is vaccinated.
Widespread vaccination has helped to reduce the transmission and severity of the disease. But with Omicron proving to be even more contagious than previous variants, why are countries moving to shorter quarantine periods, and will they be enough to contain the fourth wave?
How long have you been infected with coronavirus?
The answer seems to depend on whether you are vaccinated.
A recent US study analyzed how long people with coronavirus were contagious and found that among those vaccinated, the average time it took to remove their infection was 5.5 days, while among unvaccinated people it was 7.5. days.
However examination, which has not been peer-reviewed, looked at infectivity from the Alpha and Delta variants of concern, and was performed before Omicron was dominant.
In the announcement of the change from 10 to seven days quarantine for infected people, the UK Health Security Agency said the move was based on its own analysis suggesting a seven-day isolation period along with two negative lateral flow test results “has almost the same protection effect” ”As a 10-day isolation period without antigen testing for people with COVID-19.
In the United States, the CDC also said the five-day move was “motivated by science. “It pointed to data showing that the majority of coronavirus transmission occurs in the first two days before symptoms begin and up to three days thereafter.
Meanwhile, Greece pointed to preliminary data suggesting that Omicron infection may not only be milder but also shorter, allowing for a shorter quarantine period.
What are the conditions for being released from quarantine?
Each country has a different approach.
The UK has only opted for conditional quarantine release on day seven if people test negative with a lateral flow test on days six and seven.
Greece, on the other hand, is following the US CDC in adopting what it calls the five-plus-five rule: a five-day home quarantine followed by a five-day mask wearing if the symptoms have disappeared.
But some scientists have pushed back toward shortening isolation periods without testing to release. “By not including a test requirement, there will be a lot of infectious people in the workforce who transmit the virus to the others – which further increases public health risks and likely economic disruption.” tweeted Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.
Meanwhile, some countries have dropped quarantine completely for close contacts, including the UK and Italy, and instead move to varying test requirements and isolation if people are tested positive.
Why do countries do that?
With European infection rates rising sharply, especially over the past week, countries are looking for tools that can keep hospitals and key public services running while limiting the spread of the virus.
In the UK, which has registered over 100,000 cases daily since December 22, reached over 189,846 Friday, London commuter trains have been canceled due to staff absenteeism with COVID-19, while hospitals are under enormous pressure from labor shortages and increasing COVID-19 patients.
In the UK, 24,632 hospital staff were absent due to COVID-19 illness or self-isolation on December 26, according to NHS England data released Friday.
The UK Health Security Agency said the reduced quarantine period was based in part on the need to protect vital services and supply chains over the winter.
In Greece, Ministry of Health said hospitals were already overcrowded from Delta cases when Omicron arrived. The country is now facing record high infection rates, with Omicron now the dominant variant, accounting for more than 60 percent of cases.
Meanwhile, US CDC chief Rochelle Walensky recognized that the agency’s decision to change the recommended isolation period “really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate.” She told local media that during the entire pandemic, less than a third of the population followed the isolation guidelines.