On Wednesday, October 22, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expanded the definition of a “close contact” with a COVID-19 infected person to include brief interactions over a 24-hour period. This expanded definition has important implications for the workplace and impacts all COVID-19 state and county health orders.
Previously, the CDC defined a “close contact” to mean spending at least 15 minutes within six feet of an infectious person. The new definition states that cumulative contact of 15 minutes or more within six feet of an infectious person over a 24-hour period starting from two days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, two days prior to test specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated. The change is likely a result of a recent study involving a worker in a cloth microfiber mask, gown and eye protection who contracted the disease after brief contacts over the course of a day with infected persons who wore masks during most, but not all, of the encounters.
The State of California follows the definitions established by the CDC and has already updated its definition of “close contact” as someone who was within six feet of a person with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period starting from two days before symptoms appeared (or, for asymptomatic patients, two days prior to their test) until the time the patient is isolated. California’s definition also defines a close contact as: providing care at home to someone who is sick with COVID-19; having direct physical contact with such a person (hugging or kissing them); sharing eating or drinking utensils with such a person; or being sneezed, or coughed upon, or somehow having respiratory droplets fall on you from an infected person.
Los Angeles County currently defines a “close contact” as being within six feet of the infected person for at least 15 minutes or having unprotected contact with the infected person’s body fluids and/or secretions, such as being coughed or sneezed on. An “infected person” is anyone with COVID-19, or who is suspected to have COVID-19, and is considered to be infectious from two days before their symptoms first appeared until they are no longer required to be isolated. A person with a positive COVID-19 test but no symptoms is considered to be infectious from two days before their test was taken until 10 days after their test. It is likely that the county will revise its definition of close contact to match that of the CDC in the immediate future.
What this means for the workplace is that employers should strive to minimize or prevent even brief interactions that can create a cumulative risk for workers. In addition, employers should inform workers of the new definition of close contact so that appropriate steps can be taken in the event of close contact by a worker who might come into contact with others.
The author would like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Joanne Warriner.