The CDC said new COVID-19 isolation guidelines were based on what it thought people could tolerate.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the changes were made in the context of surging cases.
Omicron accounts for 59% of all sequenced COVID-19 cases in the US, according to CDC data.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said on Wednesday that the shortened COVID-19 isolation guidelines were based on what the CDC "thought people would be able to tolerate."
"It really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate," Walensky told Katilan Collins on CNN after Collins asked whether the decision had as much to do with business as it did with science.
The CDC on Monday updated its recommended isolation policy for people who are infected from 10 days to five days — as long as they don't have any symptoms.
Walensky added: "We have seen relatively low rates of isolation for all of this pandemic."
She said the CDC's isolation guidance was previously "conservative" and that the changes were made in the context of a surge in COVID-19 cases in which many people may be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic.
"People would feel well enough to be at work — they would not necessarily tolerate being home — and if they may not comply with being home, this is the moment that we needed to make that decision and those changes," she said.
The CDC's rule change prompted backlash from unions, which said the new guidelines put workers at risk and was put in place to help businesses avoid labor shortages, not to keep the public safe.
"We said we wanted to hear from medical professionals on the best guidance for quarantine, not from corporate America advocating for a shortened period due to staffing shortages," Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in a statement Monday.
National Nurses United, the country's largest union of registered nurses, issued similar criticism last week when the CDC shortened the isolation period for healthcare workers.
"Weakening Covid-19 guidance now, in the face of what could be the most devastating Covid-19 surge yet, will only result in further transmission, illness, and death," Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, the president of the union, wrote in a letter last week to Walensky.
According to the latest estimates from the CDC, the highly infectious Omicron variant accounts for about 59% of all sequenced COVID-19 cases in the US — which is up from 23% of cases last week.
Overall, cases continue to rise at a rapid rate. The country's seven-day average for infections hit 240,437 on Monday, putting the US on track to break its previous seven-day average record of 250,437 daily cases, which was set in January, according to CDC data.
The situation on the ground is far different from last year. Almost 62% of the US population is fully vaccinated, and 73% of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. And 33% has gotten a booster shot, which offers additional protection against the highly infectious Omicron variant.
Rising hospitalizations, including among children, are straining the healthcare system, but those hospitalizations are not a sign the virus is more severe or dangerous to kids, experts say. Instead, preliminary data suggest children experience milder cases from Omicron compared with Delta — and surging cases of both variants inevitably mean more hospitalizations among all age groups.
"I think the important story to tell here is that severity is way down and the risk for significant severe disease seems to be lower," Dr. David Rubin, a researcher at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told The New York Times.
While deaths typically lag rising infections by several weeks, they are at a fraction of the fatalities that the US experienced in January. During last winter's peak, the US was averaging more than 3,300 daily deaths from the virus. Now, the US is averaging fewer than 1,100 COVID-19 deaths each day.
Taylor Rains contributed reporting.
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