This week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said there will...

This week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said there will be an update to the agency's mask guidelines, but said the general advice is for people to wear well-fitting masks. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The fast-changing guidelines on how to isolate, quarantine and mask up during the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has left many New Yorkers confused and frustrated.

Medical experts said the updates will continue as science scrambles to keep up with the quick-spreading omicron variant. Their worry is that people will start ignoring important messages because of the constant changes and updates.

"People are losing trust in the guidelines since there doesn’t seem to be consistent messaging," said Tomeka Robinson, professor of Rhetoric & Public Advocacy at Hofstra University, who specializes in health communication. "If they lose trust, they are less likely to view the guidelines as being necessary to follow."

At the end of December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the time that people who tested positive for COVID-19 have to isolate, from 10 days to five — if they no longer have symptoms. CDC officials said the change was motivated by research that shows transmission takes place one to two days before symptoms surface and about two to three days afterward.

Many were perplexed that the agency did not say that a negative test result was needed to end isolation. It did urge people to wear a mask around others for an additional five days.

"I understand, but I think it's confusing to a lot of people," said Gabrielle Bush, 19, of Rocky Point. "It makes sense going back to work, but not for younger people going out and seeing people after five days. You could still be giving people COVID."

In recent days, health officials have encouraged people to wear N95 respirator masks and KN95 masks for the best protection against the airborne virus. This runs counter to the suggestions in the early days of the pandemic, when the public was discouraged from wearing those devices due to the fear there would not be enough for health care workers and first responders.

This week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said there will be an update to the agency’s mask guidelines, but said the general advice is for people to wear well-fitting masks.

Dan Panzenbeck, of Greenlawn, said he follows CDC guidelines but noted that the agency’s changes on things such as masking have become too political.

"I think people are being pushed to make decisions and not enough is known about this virus," he said, noting he does not have a political affiliation. "I think the CDC has become too political and government controlled, and changes opinions too quickly."

Robinson said "clear and consistent" messaging is vital to informing the public.

"Simply releasing the information in a press conference or even a press release does not give media professionals the necessary language to decipher what is being said," she said.

According to published reports, a media consultant is helping Walensky better craft vital messages about pandemic guidelines and health issues. During a briefing with reporters on Friday, she said the agency is "working really hard to get information to the American public and balancing that with the realities that we’re all living with," and is "committed to continue to improve as we learn more about the science and to communicate that with all of you."

Dr. Zenobia Brown, vice president of population health and medical director at Northwell Health, said while COVID-19 is an infectious disease, it’s also a "disease of anxiety."

"There is a cascade of worry and anxiousness that happens as a result of that infection," she said. "Part of what drives that is the severity of what it can be, but also that it is hard to keep up with what you're supposed to do. It's hard to even keep up with whether you should be worried or not."

She advises people to not get discouraged by the changing guidelines and information. Those with questions should reach out to their doctor.

"The basic things are the same, which is the way this spreads from person to person," Brown said. "You get sneezed on coughed on … so to decrease your risk, wear a mask. Be around other people wearing masks.

"The problem with COVID is it doesn't want to stay one disease," she added. "Because of that, the guidelines are changing and are going to keep changing."

What to know

CDC guidelines say people exposed to COVID-19 who are up-to-date on vaccinations do not need to quarantine, but should get tested at least five days after having close contact with an infected person, watch for symptoms and wear a mask for 10 days.

People who are exposed but are not up-to-date on vaccines should quarantine for five days, get tested at least five days after close contact, watch for symptoms and wear a mask for 10 days.

People who have tested positive for COVID-19 regardless of their vaccination status, should stay home for five days and isolate from other people in their home as much as possible. If that person is fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication, a person can end isolation after five days and should wear a mask until day 10.

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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