Delta Air Lines Asks CDC To Reduce Isolation Period

Delta Air Lines has asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to consider reducing the mandatory isolation period for fully vaccinated individuals who test positive for COVID-19. The airline wants to see the policy change from ten days to five days. The reason for this is simple: Delta is trying to avoid an operational meltdown.


Delta Air Lines asked the CDC to reduce the quarantine period for breakthrough infections. Photo: Getty Images

Delta Air Lines asks for a reduced isolation period

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, Chief Health Officer Dr. Henry Ting, and medical advisor to the airline Dr. Carlos Del Rio co-signed a letter to the CDC asking the agency to reconsider its isolation period for fully-vaccinated individuals.

In the letter, Delta outlined how the guidance for ten-day isolation was developed in 2020, before the mass spread of vaccines and therapies. Now, Delta believes those guidelines should be changed in light of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Citing some studies that indicate Omicron is 25-50% more contagious but likely less virulent and causes more mild disease among fully-vaccinated individuals, the airline believes it warrants revisiting the policy.

In justification of the five-day isolation period, Delta outlined how the Omicron variant is associated with a shorter incubation and infectious period among fully-vaccinated individuals. Delta did not detail the specific studies from which it received this data.

Delta Air Lines Asks CDC To Reduce Isolation Period
Delta CEO Ed Bastian was one of the signatories. Photo: Delta Air Lines

The ultimate goal is to see the CDC institute a new five-day isolation period from symptom onset for breakthrough infections. Covering fully-vaccinated individuals, Delta believes an appropriate testing protocol would be needed to help end the isolation period. It also highlighted how it was willing to work with the CDC to collect empirical data to support decision-making.

Why Delta is asking for this

Delta Air Lines was straightforward in explaining why it wanted to see this policy changed. The letter states:

“At Delta, over 90% of our workforce are fully vaccinated, and those rates are increasing daily. Our employees represent an essential workforce to enable Americans who need to travel domestically and internationally. 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.”

Delta Air Lines Asks CDC To Reduce Isolation Period
Delta is worried about having a large number of its employees out sick during one of the busiest travel periods of the year. Photo: Delta Air Lines

The way Delta sees this becoming a problem is due to the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant. Delta worries that more of its employees may contract the virus through a breakthrough infection and then need to isolate for ten days. However, the worry is that a relatively large mass of individuals will get sick around the same time, putting a strain on Delta’s operations as the airline manages the ten-day isolation period. Delta has been aggressive in expanding its vaccination rate, including adding a monthly surcharge for unvaccinated individuals.

Furthermore, Delta took note of the requirement for airline personnel to wear a mask at airports and airplanes as a method of precaution to help reduce the spread of the virus in public settings. This applies to both employees and customers. The federal mask mandate is in effect through at least mid-March of 2022.

pandemic-era concern for airlines

The concern of higher numbers of employees testing positive or getting sick alongside case count spikes in the United States has been repeated many times since COVID-19 first hit the US. While some operational disruptions may have been related to higher-than-normal employees calling out sick, the concern now is about staffing shortages around what is shaping up to be an incredibly busy holiday period.

Delta Air Lines Asks CDC To Reduce Isolation Period
Staffing shortages have been well-known throughout the crisis but could be exacerbated by an increase in sick employees. Photo: Delta Air Lines

With Delta expecting to fly just on average just under half a million people every day between December 17th and January 3rd, disruption of large numbers of employees out sick could be a massive operational challenge that could wreak havoc for travelers and the airline alike. While there are safety measures in place, breakthrough infections appear to be more common among vaccinated individuals due to Omicron, though cases appear to be less severe.

Delta is not alone in this. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading medical expert who serves as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and is a Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden, told CNN that discussions were underway to reduce the quarantine period for fully vaccinated individuals who are asymptomatic, though the keen worry driving that is a shortage of healthcare personnel.

It remains to be seen what the CDC decides. It is clear that the Omicron variant is here, and it is spreading rapidly. The CDC’s data from Monday showed that 73% of US cases were of the Omicron variant. The Omicron variant led to a rash of hastily enacted travel bans against countries in southern Africa after public health experts in South Africa alerted the world about it.

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