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News brief: Revised COVID guidelines, pandemic school year, Winter Olympics

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

How exactly did quarantine rules change? And just as important, why now?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a change yesterday. The old guidance said if you test positive for COVID-19, isolate yourself from other people for 10 days. The new guidance says you may go out into the world after five days with a mask if you have no symptoms. If you're sick, you still stay home.

MARTINEZ: A shorter quarantine comes amid a giant COVID surge, so we've called NPR health reporter Pien Huang. All right, so is this a good idea?

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Well, as was just mentioned, the updated guidance doesn't apply to everyone. It's specific to people who don't develop any symptoms, even after testing positive for COVID and staying home. Some studies have shown that people without symptoms are less likely to spread the virus. The guidance also goes on to say you can come out after five days, but please, please wear a mask for at least another five. Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at the NYU School of Medicine, is OK with this change with a caveat.

CELINE GOUNDER: I think the shortening of the isolation period is reasonable if that is paired with rapid antigen testing to come out of isolation at five days.

HUANG: That's not part of the CDC's guidelines, but it's because some people can be infectious for longer than that. But it's hard to get COVID tested in a lot of places right now. Rapid antigen tests are sold out on shelves and online. Gounder says she thinks the policy could lead to some additional COVID spread if people aren't being careful.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And we know that big businesses have been pushing for this change to help with staffing shortages. Is this a business decision or a scientific one?

HUANG: Well, it definitely comes at a time of big economic disruptions due to the rapid spread of COVID. Airlines are canceling flights; pro sports games are postponed; restaurants are shutting down. And the administration has been getting pressure from states to let up so that people can get back to work. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson told NPR this change came from a direct request governors made to President Biden.

ASA HUTCHINSON: That's a result of the communication with governors, letting the White House know the flexibility that we need.

HUANG: Now, the CDC says the change is motivated by science showing that it's not necessary to isolate for 10 days 'cause the coronavirus spreads most when people are just getting sick and two to three days after that. But usually when the agency makes updates, they publish a scientific brief pointing to papers that back it up. Jessica Malaty Rivera, an epidemiologist and adviser at the Pandemic Prevention Institute, says that didn't happen this time.

JESSICA MALATY RIVERA: And so, like, let's see it. Let's see the papers that talk about the incubation period, the viral loads, the rate of infection. I need to see all that so that we can justify this and make people feel confident in this redirection.

HUANG: The agency could still come out later with a brief on the change. But without being clear about how the science has shifted, health experts say it might be what people with pandemic fatigue need to hear right now, but it also feels politically, economically motivated.

MARTINEZ: Now, one of the main strategies for keeping the economy up and running even in the middle of this pandemic is to be able to rely more heavily on testing and treatments. Is that happening?

HUANG: It's not at the rate that people want it to be. See, people have been lining up at malls, around city blocks to get tested. Governors told President Biden they need more tests. Biden says he's been working on it. As for treatments, the one monoclonal antibody that works against omicron is in short supply. Some big cities have completely run out. Last week, the FDA authorized two antiviral pills, and the government's distributing enough to treat 360,000 people this month. So we're currently in a period where more tests, more treatments are coming in the next few weeks, but omicron is surging now.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Pien Huang. Thank you very much.

HUANG: Thanks for having me.

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MARTINEZ: Pediatric hospitalizations for COVID are surging in many parts of the country.

INSKEEP: Which is one reason that schools have to figure out how to respond next semester to the latest rise in infections. Students, teachers and parents are trying to navigate a new semester and new rules. Here's Sha'Miah Robinson, a student in Greensboro, N.C., who says coming back to high school was tough after months of lockdown.

SHA'MIAH ROBINSON: I felt like I lacked the energy to do stuff, so I pretty much became a couch potato. And I really didn't want to - I didn't want to go to school. I didn't want to do anything.

MARTINEZ: Here to catch us up on the education year that's passed and the one to come is our education correspondent Anya Kamenetz. All right. So Anya, what's - is top of mind for educators as they contemplate this new school semester?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Unfortunately, as we've heard, you know, they've had to turn their attention to the omicron variant. So we've seen a handful of districts already announce a shift to remote learning or delays coming back from winter break, from Washington, D.C., to Mount Vernon, N.Y., all the way to Chester County, S.C. We've seen other districts sending students home with rapid tests and saying, please take these before you come back to school. In New Orleans, schools are out ahead of the country and saying all students down to 5 years old need to have their first vaccine shots not long after the first of the year. Of course, there's lots of exemptions to that.

MARTINEZ: Sure, sure. I mean, how would you sum up the 2021 school year?

KAMENETZ: You know what it made me think of? There's this woman who set a world record in the first few months of the pandemic by running 95 marathons in 95 days.

MARTINEZ: Yes. Yes, I...

KAMENETZ: So she actually had to stop because she got COVID.

MARTINEZ: Oh, my gosh.

KAMENETZ: And it's been a little bit like that. In fact, educators have told us this semester has been the toughest of the pandemic so far. Here's Brycial Williams, a reading specialist in Arkansas, and they spoke to my colleague Clare Lombardo.

BRYCIAL WILLIAMS: We've got several teachers out who are quarantined. A lot of teachers also feel overwhelmed. These babies that are in school now, they have been experiencing a lot of trauma. You know, it's affecting them drastically.

KAMENETZ: So on the bright side, new federal data shows that nearly all students were back full time in-person this fall. However, there's concerns about learning loss, social and emotional, and these learning interruptions that have been dragging on - you know, children being sent home to quarantine. Thousands of schools have had to close their doors completely because of staff shortages. And the CDC has said now that schools can use rapid tests, hopefully to shorten those quarantines. But that's going to take a lot of tests.

MARTINEZ: All right - 36 governors races in 2022 and then the midterm elections. Any thoughts about how education might play out as an issue on these races?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. So I've reported on the right-wing activism over masks, vaccines, race and LGBTQ rights. And that's playing out on the school board level on up. In November's Virginia gubernatorial race, in particular, some focus groups and exit polls pointed to the issues of prolonged remote learning and now these unpredictable closures and quarantines as being a swing voter issue, potentially among suburban white women. And we have reported on enrollment drops in some public school districts. Private school and charter school enrollment is up.

MARTINEZ: All right. So we're not a bummer all the way throughout, Anya, any bright spots you can leave us as people prepare to return after the holiday break?

KAMENETZ: You know, as hard as things are right now, I'm encouraged by this new focus on students' social and emotional well-being. As you heard Sha'Miah say at the top of the show, students really are needing help to readjust after lockdown, and schools are listening to that.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Thanks a lot.

KAMENETZ: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: With the Winter Olympics kicking off in Beijing soon, organizers are putting in some strict rules to limit the spread of COVID-19.

INSKEEP: Yeah, there are limits on spectators, even limits on how they celebrate. Service and support staff will not be allowed to leave the Olympic venues. All of these efforts are aimed at preventing the coronavirus from getting into the games or out into the country. But as the omicron variant cancels or delays sporting events in the United States, it's causing a lot of uncertainty for Team USA and Beijing.

MARTINEZ: All right. For more on these measures, we have USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan. She's covered every Olympics since the '84 Games in Los Angeles. Christine, what are the vaccination, testing and quarantine requirements at the Beijing Games?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: A, vaccinations are mandatory, or the athlete or the coach or journalist would have to serve a 21-day quarantine upon arrival in Beijing, which means vaccines are definitely mandatory because no athlete or official will want to go through 21 days in a hotel room before the Olympic Games begin. Two negative tests are required to get into Beijing for the Olympic Games by everyone who's going, and then there will be daily testing during the games - every day, every single participant. If you do test positive and are in quarantine, there are many, many rules for that. But the bottom line is you must have two negative tests. There will also be a medical expert panel with the International Olympic Committee to determine who gets out of quarantine and when.

MARTINEZ: China is imposing what they call a closed loop during the Olympics. What's a closed loop?

BRENNAN: It's much more than what happened with the Tokyo Summer Olympics, A, just a few months ago. It means you're in a tight bubble, even more bubble-lized (ph) than than Tokyo was - and not only when you're actually in Beijing, but even before. For example, journalists, we have to fly basically in a bubble-lized flight. We have to go to four certain cities, one of four around the world, and then get on a designated flight that is basically a bubble to get into Beijing. This is much, much different than the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. It's not clear what happens if your flight gets delayed and you're stuck in that hub city. But what the Chinese are doing is making it so it's just absolutely a tight, tight bubble. Of course, the question would be, if omicron gets inside the bubble, my goodness, what could happen then?

MARTINEZ: What if I want to go to the Olympics, Christine? Can I go? Can I attend?

BRENNAN: No, you cannot, A. Chinese spectators are allowed - Chinese citizens. Foreign nationals who live there can attend. And this will be different from those Tokyo Summer Olympics, which were basically empty stadiums. So visually, this will look better. Chinese fans will be there, but no overseas spectators at all. And by the way, if you do go, spectators are allowed to clap, but no cheering or shouting. Of course, masks will be worn, but nothing like that. They want only clapping to not have any chance of spreading the virus.

MARTINEZ: So no cheering in the stands and the press box, I guess. Ok. The Olympics start on February 4. U.S. skiing star Mikaela Shiffrin just tested positive for COVID. So what does this mean for her and her team?

BRENNAN: Yeah, one of the biggest names going into the games. She still has time before the Olympics to get better and should be able to compete. But this isn't great news for her or for any athlete trying to make the Olympics. The last thing any athlete wants to do is to quarantine and miss any days of practice or training. So this just shows that we'll have another Olympics with so much uncertainty and just real concern about how these athletes are going to make it to the games, which, of course, is the highlight of their careers.

MARTINEZ: That's USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan. Christine, thank you.

BRENNAN: A, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.