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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. (AP) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. (AP)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. (AP)

Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone March 8, 2024

Some people claim vindication after CDC change on COVID-19 guidance. Here’s why they’re wrong.

If Your Time is short

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 1 updated its guidance on COVID-19, putting it in line with other respiratory illnesses, including influenza.

  • People who have COVID-19 no longer are asked to isolate themselves for five days before returning to work or school. Instead, once their symptoms have improved, they can take other preventive measures, such as wearing masks.

  • Public health experts at the CDC and elsewhere said the change in guidance is a response to lower rates of COVID-19-related deaths and hospitalizations because of vaccines, immunity from infection and effective treatments. Similarly, public health guidance about influenza has evolved over time.

  • Learn more about PolitiFact’s fact-checking process and rating system.

New COVID-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends precautions in line with influenza and other respiratory viruses, leaving some skeptics crowing on social media that they were right all along.

"The CDC officially agrees with ‘conspiracy theorists’ from 2020," a March 2 Instagram post read. "Interesting how that worked out."

The post’s caption listed grievances about pandemic measures such as lockdowns, school closures and vaccines, saying, "And now, four years later the CDC says treat it like the flu."

This post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

We found dozens of social media posts making similar claims that people who have long said COVID-19 was no different than the flu were right all along.

The claims are wrong about what the change in CDC guidelines says about the early days of the pandemic and a virus that has killed more than 1 million people in the United States and more than 7 million globally since 2020, experts told PolitiFact.

What changed in the guidance?

The CDC changed its guidance on COVID-19 to streamline it with other respiratory viruses such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. People with COVID-19 no longer must isolate for five days before going back to the office or to school, as the CDC had previously recommended.

Instead, the CDC said, people sick with COVID-19, or the flu and other respiratory viruses, should stay home and away from others until their symptoms have improved and they no longer have a fever — without the use of fever-reducing medications — for at least 24 hours.

People are also encouraged to take additional steps for the next five days to avoid spreading the virus, such as social distancing, wearing a mask or improving air quality by opening windows or using an air purifier, the CDC said. 

Those are important to protect those more vulnerable to COVID-19, such as people 65 and older and those with weakened immune systems, the CDC said.

"What (the) CDC is really saying is, ‘Here are three options for what to do during that five-day period when you might still be infectious,’" said Dr. Céline Gounder, editor at large for KFF Health News and an infectious disease specialist.

The CDC also recommends people stay up to date with vaccines, practice good hygiene and take steps for cleaner air, such as purifying indoor air. 

The new guidance doesn’t apply to health care settings or for pathogens such as measles that may have specific containment measures, the CDC said.

Why did the guidance change?

The CDC said in a March 1 news release that the new guidelines are meant to bring a unified approach to common respiratory viruses that have similar routes of transmission and symptoms. The changes would make recommendations easier to follow and help protect those most at risk, the agency said.

The change is possible because there are far fewer hospitalizations and deaths today associated with COVID-19, and there are more tools available to treat it, such as vaccines and treatments.

"We are in a different place. We have data and evidence that shows our tools are working to protect us against COVID," CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen said in a March 4 X post announcing the new guidelines.

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Weekly hospital admissions for COVID-19 this winter were down more than 75%, and deaths were down by more than 90% compared with January 2022, the peak of the virus’s first omicron wave, the CDC said.

"We saw these decreases even while our wastewater data showed we had high levels of viral illness circulating this season," Cohen said in her X video.

More than 98% of the U.S. population has some degree of immunity against COVID-19, through vaccines, prior infections or both, the CDC said. At the same time, vaccines and treatments such as antiviral drug Paxlovid are available that weren’t early in the pandemic. 

Some states, such as California and Oregon, had already put similar isolation guidance in place before the CDC change.

Gounder said most people who are sick aren’t testing and don’t know if they have COVID-19, the flu or a common cold virus. So the goal of the CDC change is to "align the guidance across all of them so you don’t even have to test to know what to do."

Does that mean COVID-19 should have been treated like the flu from the start?

No, experts told PolitiFact. It just means that we’re in a much better place than we were early in the pandemic, when we were learning on the fly about a novel coronavirus.

"The CDC is comparing the mortality of COVID-19 to influenza now but that was not the case at the beginning of the pandemic," said Dr. Monica Gandhi, a University of California, San Francisco, medical professor and an infectious disease expert. "COVID was far deadlier than influenza until we got to widespread population immunity."

That does not mean that COVID-19 was like the flu in 2020, Gandhi said.

"SARS-CoV-2 hit a nonimmune population all over the planet at that time, unfortunately leading to high rates of mortality," Gandhi said.

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and George Washington University adjunct associate professor, said public health policy must evolve as science — and the facts — change.

The outlook for someone suffering from the flu is much different today, and public health measures have also evolved. Before the advent of flu vaccines or antibiotics, the influenza pandemic of 1918 spread worldwide and killed at least 50 million people, including about 675,000 in the United States. As with COVID-19, public health control efforts around that early flu outbreak were largely limited to social distancing and quarantines. 

Health officials appropriately used mitigation measures specific to COVID-19 through 2020 and 2021 when there was hope the disease could be contained or eliminated, Wen said.

"Circumstances have changed," Wen said, pointing to available vaccines, treatments and high population exposure to the virus, and less lethal subvariants of omicron. "It is now clear that it's not possible for COVID to be eliminated. As a result, it is now appropriate to consider COVID in the same category of other serious respiratory pathogens such as influenza."

Gounder said the claim that the CDC guidance change vindicated people who said we should have treated COVID-19 like the flu all along is "patently false," adding that even though deaths are down from their peak, COVID-19 is still the deadliest of the common respiratory viruses in the U.S., and the most likely to land adults in the hospital.

Our ruling

An Instagram post said the CDC’s new COVID-19 guidance means "The CDC officially agrees with ‘conspiracy theorists’ from 2020" who wanted to treat COVID-19 like the flu."

The claim ignores what public health officials knew about the virus that causes COVID-19 in the pandemic’s early days. It overlooks that vaccines, treatments and natural immunity have since lessened the threat of COVID-19, leading to far fewer deaths and hospitalizations.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Instagram post, March 2, 2024 (archived)

Email interview, Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician and George Washington University adjunct associate professor, March 5, 2024

Email interview, Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, March 5, 2024

Email interview, Dr. Monica Gandhi, a University of California, San Francisco medical professor, March 6, 2024

Zoom interview, Dr. Céline Gounder, editor at large for KFF Health News, March 6, 2024

CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen, X post, March 4, 2024

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Background for CDC’s updated respiratory virus guidance, accessed March 6, 2024

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Preventing spread of respiratory viruses when you’re sick, accessed March 6, 2024 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC updates and simplifies respiratory virus recommendations, March 1, 2024

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Respiratory Virus Guidance, accessed March 6, 2024

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Respiratory Virus Guidance Update FAQs, accessed March 6, 2024

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  Trends in United States COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths, emergency department (ED) visits, and test positivity by geographic area, accessed March 6, 2024

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report, accessed March 6, 2024

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Protect yourself and others from Flu, COVID-19, and RSV, accessed March 6, 2024

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Taking steps for cleaner air for respiratory virus prevention, accessed March 6, 2024

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA approves first oral antiviral for Treatment of COVID-19 in adults, May 25, 2023

The Wall Street Journal, It’s official: We can pretty much treat COVID like the flu now. Here’s a guide., March 1, 2024

California Department of Public Health, COVID-19 Isolation Guidance, Jan. 9, 2024

Oregon Health Authority, COVID-19, accessed March 6, 2024.

Bloomberg Television, CDC Director on New Covid Guidance, Fentanyl and Maternal Health in US, March 4, 2024 

World Health Organization, Number of COVID-19 deaths reported to WHO (cumulative total), accessed March 7, 2024

PolitiFact, What the 1918 flu pandemic shows us about social distancing, April 17, 2020

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Some people claim vindication after CDC change on COVID-19 guidance. Here’s why they’re wrong.

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