ROME (AP) — Italy’s Health Ministry is asking government advisers to evaluate new World Health Organization recommendations saying that people with COVID-19 can come out of isolation before they test negative for the coronavirus.
The WHO last week said patients who spent 10 consecutive days in isolation with symptoms can be released if they are then symptom-free for at least three days. People who don’t develop COVID-19 symptoms can stop isolating 10 days after they first test positive, according to WHO’s revised guidelines.
Previously, WHO recommended ending the isolation of infected people only after they twice tested negative on samples taken 24 hours apart. The change is significant given that many countries are grappling with how to deal with thousands of people who are technically infected with the virus but may not still pose a transmission risk to others.
The U.N. health agency said it updated its recommendations because recovered COVID-19 patients were still testing positive for the virus weeks later. Despite their results, “these patients are not likely to be infectious and therefore are unlikely to be able to transmit the virus to another person,” WHO said.
Italy, the onetime epicenter of the pandemic in Europe, followed the WHO’s previous testing advice, with some people self-isolating even though they felt fine because they kept testing positive for the coronavirus.
One woman made headlines in Italy because she tested positive six times, over the course of 57 days, even though she said felt fine. But technically speaking, she was required to remain in isolation.
Health Minister Roberto Speranza asked the Italian government’s scientific and technical advisory committee Sunday for guidance on the new WHO recommendations, noting they represented a “significant” change to Italy’s management of COVID-19 patients.
Speranza said in a statement that the updated advice also could alter how the government counts who has officially recovered from the virus and recommended “maximum precaution.”
Anecdotally, doctors have said many of Italy’s new confirmed cases are due to people getting tested for the virus after they did blood tests looking for COVID-19 antibodies.
In Italy, those who have developed antibodies are automatically tested specifically for the coronavirus, with some positive results being registered in people who may have been sick much earlier or never felt ill.
Italy on Sunday reported 224 new coronavirus cases and 24 deaths in the past day, bringing the country’s official death toll in the pandemic to 34,634.