On Dec. 28, 2021, "Delta CEO" began trending on Twitter after a new rumor cropped up about the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The rumor claimed that the CDC issued new guidance reducing the COVID-19 isolation and quarantine time for breakthrough cases from 10 to five days primarily as a decision to help businesses. The specific accusation was that the CDC disregarded science and health in its decision making after Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian sent a letter to the agency that asked it to consider making the reduction.
Jemele Hill, a journalist for The Atlantic, tweeted about the CDC's announcement, saying, "That’s not a health decision."
Another tweet from former Texas Democratic Congressional candidate Russell Foster claimed: "This change has nothing to do with the virus or your health & everything to do with the profits of corporations."
We looked for the facts and found partial answers. We also contacted both Delta Air Lines and the CDC with questions. Below are our findings.
The Letter from Delta to CDC
The story began on Dec. 21 after Reuters published that it had reviewed a letter that was sent from the Delta Air Lines CEO to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
According to Reuters, Bastian made his company's case this way:
"With the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the 10-day isolation for those who are fully vaccinated may significantly impact our workforce and operations," [the Delta CEO wrote to the CDC]. "Similar to healthcare, police, fire, and public transportation workforces, the Omicron surge may exacerbate shortages and create significant disruptions."
Bastian noted the current guidance was developed in 2020 "when the pandemic was in a different phase without effective vaccines and treatments."
Delta Air Lines also published the letter on its website.
In an email, a spokesperson for Delta Air Lines pointed us to a statement made by the company that said the letter was co-signed by two healthcare experts:
Delta CEO Ed Bastian, Chief Health Officer Dr. Henry Ting and the airline’s medical advisor Dr. Carlos Del Rio, Distinguished Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, co-signed a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Tuesday asking the agency to reconsider its current COVID-19 isolation guidance. The request comes after analysis by medical experts of data that indicates the Omicron variant has a shorter incubation and infectious period among those who are fully vaccinated against the virus.
In the letter to the CDC, Bastian and Dr. Ting and Dr. Del Rio joined other medical professionals in proposing a shortened isolation period from 10-days to five days for fully vaccinated people who are experiencing a breakthrough infection.
On the same day that Reuters published the story about the letter, NBC News reported that U.S. public health authorities were considering "shortening the 10-day recommended quarantine period for asymptomatic healthcare workers." The news came from White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Developments on Dec. 23
On Dec. 23, two days after the Delta Air Lines letter was made public, other carriers agreed with Delta Air Lines about the reduction in isolation days.
CNBC reported: "Airlines for America, which represents Southwest, American, United, Delta, and others, warned that the current quarantine guidelines could cause labor shortages and disruptions."
However, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, disagreed:
“Staffing flights with crewmembers who may still be symptomatic, infectious, or both by shortening them on necessary isolation time will only make this situation worse,” Nelson wrote. She said while the majority of flight attendants are vaccinated, some might not have received booster shots.
“Flight Attendants should not be expected to return to work until they test negative and do not exhibit symptoms,” Nelson continued. “We do not know if 10 days represents that ‘magic number,’ but we do not see the justification for reducing the number of days at this time.”
Also on Dec. 23, the CDC released emergency guidance for healthcare workers due to the omicron variant surge in cases. It reduced the number of days for isolation and also provided "contingency and crisis management in the setting of significant healthcare worker shortages."
Holiday Flights Cancellations
Around the same time, flight cancellations began occurring across the country as the Christmas holiday approached.
According to NBC News, the surge in omicron variant cases caused the cancellations of thousands of flights for "Delta, United, JetBlue, Alaska, and other prominent airlines." On Dec. 26, Delta Air Lines said in a statement that "winter weather in portions of the U.S. and the omicron variant" were the cause of its disruptions.
Six days after the Delta Air Lines CEO's letter was made public, the CDC announced in a media statement that it had updated and shortened the recommended isolation and quarantine period for the general population.
In the news release, the agency said that there was, in fact, science behind the decision. It also provided information that did not appear in viral tweets about the Delta Air Lines CEO letter, such as new and specific CDC guidelines on masking and testing.
We have published the relevant parts of the CDC statement below:
Given what we currently know about COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, CDC is shortening the recommended time for isolation from 10 days for people with COVID-19 to 5 days, if asymptomatic, followed by 5 days of wearing a mask when around others. 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 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and the 2-3 days after. Therefore, people who test positive should isolate for 5 days and, if asymptomatic at that time, they may leave isolation if they can continue to mask for 5 days to minimize the risk of infecting others.
Additionally, CDC is updating the recommended quarantine period for those exposed to COVID-19. For people who are unvaccinated or are more than six months out from their second mRNA dose (or more than 2 months after the J&J vaccine) and not yet boosted, CDC now recommends quarantine for 5 days followed by strict mask use for an additional 5 days. Alternatively, if a 5-day quarantine is not feasible, it is imperative that an exposed person wear a well-fitting mask at all times when around others for 10 days after exposure. Individuals who have received their booster shot do not need to quarantine following an exposure, but should wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure. For all those exposed, best practice would also include a test for SARS-CoV-2 at day 5 after exposure. If symptoms occur, individuals should immediately quarantine until a negative test confirms symptoms are not attributable to COVID-19.
Both updates come as the Omicron variant continues to spread throughout the U.S. and reflects the current science on when and for how long a person is maximally infectious.
The full set of new guidelines can be seen on the CDC website, including this chart:
"The Omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society," said Walensky, the agency's director. "CDC’s updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine balance what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses. These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives. Prevention is our best option: get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial and high community transmission, and take a test before you gather.”
According to a Delta Air Lines news release, the company began implementing the new CDC guidelines as of Dec. 27.
We note that while the CDC has stated that the change in guidance was based on current science and the necessity of ensuring that people can "safely continue their daily lives," the question of whether, or to what degree, the airline industry's public comments may have influenced that decision remains unanswered. We reached out to the CDC for more information, and will update this story if we receive further answers.