South Africa ends contact-tracing, CDC reduces isolation period — how the world's approach to tackle COVID-19 has evolved

Mask mandates also vary within countries; the type of mask is also a concern

By Taran Deol
Published: Tuesday 28 December 2021
South Africa ends contact tracing, CDC reduces isolation period — how the world's approach to tackle COVID has evolved Photo: iStock

Contact-tracing, containment measures, a strict isolation period and wearing masks have the go-to tools in the fight against COVID-19. Nearly two years on, and despite a fresh surge of cases, countries have slowly begun relaxing the restrictions. 

South Africa — where the new omicron variant was isolated — has given up on contact tracing; British health minister Sajid Javid has said there will be no new curbs in England; the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reduced the isolation period for asymptomatic patients to five from 10; there are no official curbs in New York despite a rise in the cases; mask mandates have been constantly changing while N95s are now the only way forward. 

On 23 December, South Africa’s health department released a circular, detailing an order that put an end to contact tracing of COVID-19 positive patients. This method — where the contacts of an infected person are traced and tested — has till now been key in understanding the spread of the virus and containing it. 

The decision was made soon after the country’s fourth wave, triggered by omicron, peaked. The health agency noted this strategy is no longer appropriate. 

Reasons for this include a high proportion of people with immunity, a large share of resources spent in preventing very few infections, the speed at which the new variant is spreading and a high number of asymptomatic cases. 

However, contact tracing has not been done away with completely. It still remains an effective method in congregate settings — old-age homes, for instance — and cluster outbreaks. 

The circular also detailed isolation periods for asymptomatic, mildly symptomatic and severe cases of COVID-19. Other directives included: 

  • Asymptomatic patients will no longer need to be isolated but will be monitored for five-seven days
  • Eight-day isolation and mask usage for mild cases 
  • 10-day isolation period alongside mask usage for severe cases

The CDC December 27 also shortened its isolation and quarantine period from 10 days to five days, following which patients can leave isolation if they’re asymptomatic. Mask mandate should be strictly adhered to for another five days.

“The change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the one-two days prior to the onset of symptoms and 2-3 days after,” the US body noted. 

For those exposed to COVID-19, there’s no need to isolate but a mask must be worn for 10 days if they were fully vaccinated within the last six months or have received a booster dose, according to the order. For the rest, five days of isolation followed by five days of mask wearing is recommended. Both categories need to be tested for COVID-19 five days after exposure.

The United Kingdom is currently undergoing an omicron wave, having reported over 100,000 cases in a day just last week and breaking all previous records. However, Health Secretary Sajid Javid maintained that no new curbs will be implemented this year, urging people to cautiously celebrate New Years’ in an open environment. The new variant now accounts for 90 per cent of all cases in England.

However, other parts of UK — Scotland, Ireland and Wales — have reacted differently, putting in place new restrictions. 

The United States is now reporting over 200,000 cases daily but the government has not announced any curbs. However, as an increasing number of people continue to test positive, establishments have been forced to enforce a voluntary shutdown. Apple Inc, for instance, has closed 12 stores in New York, Broadway shows have been cancelled while restaurants and bars are closing down temporarily.

Mask mandates continue to differ across regions. In India, it remains a compulsion in public places and closed spaces, while a majority of states in the US don’t have any mask requirements despite a surge in cases. 

What kind of mask to wear is another question many raise. Cloth and surgical masks have become a popular choice, but it is the N95 masks that have proven to be most effective. 

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