CDC Revises Definition of "Close Contact," Expanding Scope of Employer Workplace Contact Tracing

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If an employer learns that an employee infected with COVID-19 was at the workplace, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health authorities encourage or require the employer to identify other employees who were in "close contact" with the sick employee while that employee was infectious and to take precautions.

Such precautions include notice and instruction to the exposed employees to self-quarantine at home in order to limit or prevent further spread in the workplace. This process is generally referred to as "contact tracing."

On October 21, 2020, the CDC revised its definition of "close contact," thereby changing and increasing the scope of employer's contact tracing efforts and potentially increasing the number of employees who may be deemed "close contacts" of any employee who is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19. The differences between the prior and current definitions are shown in the chart below.

Prior Definition of "Close Contact" Current Definition of "Close Contact"

Someone who met any of the following criteria with regard to someone with COVID-19 during their "infectious period:"1

  • You were within six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more;
  • You provided care at home to someone who is sick with COVID-19;
  • You had direct physical contact with the infected person (hugged or kissed them);
  • You shared eating or drinking utensils with the infected person; or
  • The infected person sneezed, coughed, or somehow got respiratory droplets on you.

Someone who meets any of the following criteria with regard to someone with COVID-19 during their "infectious period:"

  • You were within six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period during the positive COVID-19 case's infectious period;2
  • You provided care at home to someone who is sick with COVID-19;
  • You had direct physical contact with the infected person (hugged or kissed them);
  • You shared eating or drinking utensils with the infected person; or
  • The infected person sneezed, coughed, or somehow got respiratory droplets on you.

Accordingly, an individual is now a "close contact" if they had multiple brief interactions with an infected individual (during their infectious period) that total 15 minutes within 24 hours.

Contact Tracing in the Workplace

In the event that an employee is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, the CDC encourages the employer to engage in contact tracing. According to the CDC, "[q]uick and coordinated actions, including case investigation and contact tracing, may lower the need for business closures to prevent the spread of the disease." Many state and county health departments require employers to engage in contact tracing and to engage the assistance of the local health department in the event of a workplace outbreak.

Contact tracing is difficult and can be resource-intensive. Tips for effective contact tracing include:

  1. Interview the positive COVID-19 case by telephone or video conference and ask questions about with whom they interacted, which work areas they visited, and which shared equipment/objects they used.
  2. Review time records, shift schedules, keycard records, and/or surveillance video to determine which other employees worked in the same area(s) or used the same equipment/object(s) as the positive COVID-19 case.
  3. Instruct all identified close contacts to self-quarantine in accordance with federal, state, and local requirements (typically 14 days from their last known contact with the case), self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19, and seek medical treatment if needed. Close contacts should be tested for COVID-19 when possible. Employers should conduct further contact tracing to determine close contacts of any other employees who test positive for or develop symptoms of COVID-19 while self-isolating at home.

Employers should develop a COVID-19 preparedness, response, and control plan—which includes contact tracing—in advance of any employee positive cases or workplace exposures to COVID-19. Such plans should account for legal obligations imposed by federal, state, and local jurisdictions, including agency notification requirements and cleaning requirements.

Conducting quick, coordinated, and effective contact tracing is crucial to controlling further spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. This is not a process any employer should wait to develop until news that a COVID-19 case was in the workplace. Having an established plan that can be swiftly executed when needed will help limit workplace exposures.


FOOTNOTES

1  An infectious period is currently described as 48 hours before developing symptoms, until their mandatory self-isolation period ends (usually 10 days after the case's symptoms first appeared and resolution of fever for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing medications, and with improvement of other symptoms). If an individual tests positive for COVID-19 but never develops symptoms, they are considered to be infectious from 48 hours before taking the positive test, until 10 days after the positive test.
2  See, e.g., here.

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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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