Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), speaks during a House Select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis hearing on July 31, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Erin Scott | POOL | Reuters
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday overturned the controversial guidelines for coronavirus testing, according to which people who have been exposed to an infected person but have shown no symptoms "don't necessarily need a test".
The new guidance states that people with no symptoms who have been in close contact with an infected person "need a test". The CDC defines "close contact" as being within 6 feet of a person with confirmed Covid-19 infection for at least 15 minutes.
"Please consult your doctor or public health officer. Tests are recommended for all close contacts of people with SARS-CoV-2 infection," the new guidelines say. "Because of the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, it is important that contacts of people with SARS-CoV-2 infection are quickly identified and tested."
Numerous studies have shown that people can carry and spread the virus without showing symptoms – both in the presymptomatic stage and in cases where they never develop symptoms. World Health Organization public health professionals and officials have repeatedly emphasized the importance of testing people without symptoms in order to cut chains from transmission.
Many public health professionals criticized the CDC's change in testing guidelines in August because it appeared to downplay the importance of testing people who have no symptoms but who may be spreading the virus.
The CDC called the shift in guidelines a "clarification", stating that "asymptomatic individuals need to be tested".
A healthcare worker tests Eric Rodriguez for COVID-19 with a nasal swab at a pop-up testing location in the Koinonia Worship Center and Village in Pembroke Park, Fla. On July 22, 2020.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images
Representatives of the Department of Health and Human Services, under which the CDC falls, referred CNBC's request for comment to the CDC.
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, tried to clarify the old guidelines last month and said in a statement that "tests may be considered for all close contacts of confirmed or probable COVID-19 patients," but he stopped to recommend them for those without symptoms.
"Anyone who needs a COVID-19 test can get a test. Anyone who wants a test doesn't necessarily need a test. The key is to involve the required public health community in making the decision with appropriate follow-up." Redfield said in the same statement last month, adding italics to the written statement for emphasis.
Redfield informed lawmakers earlier this week that his clarification "did not solve the problem," adding that the agency intends to update the guidance this week to provide a clearer clarification. He also said that the instructions were "misinterpreted" and that "we did not try to narrow the tests".
"More testing can actually lead to fewer cases when testing is tied to public health measures," Redfield said Wednesday at the Senate Funds Subcommittee hearing.
The new guidelines recommended people waiting for test results to "quarantine / isolate themselves at home and stay as far away as possible from household members and use a separate bedroom and bathroom if available".
The updated guidelines also state that people who have no symptoms and have not been exposed to an infected person "do not need a test unless recommended or required by your health care provider or public health officer." In the previous guidelines it was definitely stated that such people do not need to be tested.
The CDC's updated guidance comes out of growing concerns about White House policy interventions in the country's leading health agencies, including the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration. At the center of such concerns is Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official who was named HHS 'top spokesperson earlier this year to align the public health message with that of the White House.
Caputo and his allies reportedly meddled in internal CDC affairs, including the release of the agency's weekly reports on morbidity and mortality. These serve as the primary channel through which the CDC communicates with doctors and public health professionals across the country about trends and emerging health issues.
HHS announced earlier this week that Caputo would be taking a 60-day vacation. The agency also announced that one of Caputo's allies, Paul Alexander, has reportedly tried to influence what White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, in media appearances, said HHS is leaving.
The old CDC guidance, endorsed by health officials including former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden, heavily criticized, was posted on the agency's website in August, despite objections from CDC scientists, the New York Times reported earlier this week. citing several people familiar with the matter and internal documents.
"That was a top-down document from HHS and the Task Force," a federal official, knowing the matter, told the Times. "This policy does not reflect what many CDC employees should think of the policy."
Adm. Brett Giroir, HHS deputy health minister responsible for the federal government's testing efforts, defended the previous change to the guidelines in a conference call with reporters last month. He insisted that there was no "weight on the scales" from either senior HHS or White House officials.
"Let me start off by telling you that the new guidelines are CDC action," he said, adding that members of the White House's coronavirus task force including Fauci and Redfield discussed and agreed the new guidelines.
But Fauci, who was recovering from vocal cord surgery at the time, later said he was "in the operating room under general anesthesia and was not part of any discussion or consideration regarding the new test recommendations".