CDC Issues New Quarantine Period Guidance

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Since March 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended—and many, if not all, localities have required—that individuals exposed to someone with COVID-19 self-quarantine for 14 days from the date of exposure.  On December 2, 2020, the CDC issued its much-anticipated updated guidance suggesting that, depending on “local circumstances and resources,” individuals may be able to exit self-quarantine sooner than 14 days. 

The CDC has recommended that individuals self-quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19 as a way to control the transmission of the virus.  The theory behind the self-quarantine is if an individual exposed to COVID-19 is self-quarantining when the individual become sick with the virus, that individual will not be able to spread the virus to others.  Since the onset of the pandemic, the CDC has recommended that individuals exposed to someone with COVID-19 self-quarantine for 14 days because prior estimates suggested that it could take up to 14 days for the virus to incubate in the exposed-individual’s body. 

Based on data modeling, the CDC has highlighted that it may not be necessary to require an individual to remain self-quarantined for 14 days after exposure to COVID-19.  According to the CDC, a 14-day self-quarantine is still the gold standard, with a median 0.1% chance of transmitting the virus 14 days after exposure.  The data suggests that after a 10-day self-quarantine, however, there is a median 1.4% chance of transmitting the virus, and after a 7-day self-quarantine, a 10.7% chance of transmitting the virus.

The CDC still recommends a quarantine period of 14 days; however, it has now provided two “acceptable alternatives” that may shorten quarantine:

  1. Quarantine can end after day 10 without the need for testing, as long as the individual did not report symptoms during the 10-day period.
  2. Quarantine can end after day 7 if the individual obtained a negative diagnostic COVID-19 test result within 48 hours of day 7, and the individual did not report symptoms during the 7-day period.  The CDC added the testing requirement to the 7-day self-quarantine period in an effort to drive down the transmission percentage.  According to the data, the addition of the test within 48 hours of day 7 reduced the median transmission percentage from 10.7% to 4%.

If these alternative quarantine periods are used, the CDC still requires that:

  • Potentially exposed individuals must not have exhibited COVID-19 symptoms during the shortened quarantine period.
  • Potentially exposed individuals continue to monitor themselves for symptoms for the remainder of the 14-day self-quarantine period.
  • Potentially exposed individuals strictly adhere to mitigation strategies after exiting self-quarantine – e.g., mask use, social distancing, avoiding crowds, etc.

The CDC offers the new guidance as a way to alleviate the potential economic and emotional hardships brought about by quarantining.  According to the CDC, the issues associated with the 14-day quarantine period may have impacted individuals’ compliance and dissuaded participation in contact-tracing efforts.

Notably, the CDC highlighted that testing symptomatic individuals remains the priority and that implementation of testing for those ending quarantine early should be considered only if it will have no impact on a community’s ability to perform diagnostic testing of symptomatic individuals.  In other words, if a community is experiencing an inability to quickly test and obtain results, testing individuals for the purpose of exiting self-quarantine earlier than 14 days should not be considered.

Finally, as noted above, the CDC concluded its update by highlighting that a 14-day self-quarantine period remains the best way to avoid transmission.  Additionally, the CDC stressed that “[l]ocal public health authorities determine and establish the quarantine options for their jurisdictions.”  So, if there are state or local requirements or recommendations specifically addressing quarantine, those would need to be followed if they are more restrictive than the new options outlined by the CDC.

With its updated guidance, the CDC has not specifically directed employers on the path they may or must take, but has provided options for businesses to consider in weighing business needs and risks when addressing return to work post-quarantine.  As always, employers should consult with counsel to ensure compliance. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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