CDC’s New Definition of “Close Contact” May Affect Workplace COVID-19 Response

Snell & Wilmer

Snell & WilmerMost employers are now familiar with pandemic-related terms such as quarantine, isolation, and social distancing, and by now you may have a response plan that incorporates those and other concepts for addressing COVID-19 in the workplace—if you don’t, then now may be a good time to reassess. On Wednesday, October 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) updated and expanded its definition of “close contact,” which is likely to have an impact on the workplace, as well as on schools and other group settings where people are in contact for extended periods of time with others who are not from their households.

Employer response plans frequently mirror CDC guidelines for making determinations such as whether an employee potentially exposed to the coronavirus needs to quarantine, and such analyses often look at whether the individual had “close contact” with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. The CDC had previously defined a “close contact” as someone who spent at least 15 consecutive minutes within six feet of a confirmed coronavirus case. The updated guidance now defines a “close contact” as “[s]omeone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period starting from 2 days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to test specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated.”

The new definition came about in part as a result of a 20-year-old prison employee in Vermont who contracted the virus but did not have a single contact with an infected individual that exceeded 15 minutes. Instead, this employee had, over an eight-hour shift, 22 separate brief (approximately one minute) interactions with infected individuals for a cumulative total of approximately 17 minutes.

This new definition highlights the importance for employers to stay on top of new developments and continually-changing guidelines and adjust their own workplace response as necessary.

The new definition, along with a clinical explanation for contact tracing, is available here.

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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