The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) issued new guidance clarifying what “close contact” means when it comes to transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. The new COVID-19 exposure guidelines now provides that brief interactions can expose individuals to the virus.
CDC’s New COVID-19 Exposure Guidance
The CDC’s previous guidance provided that close contact occurred when a person was within six feet of an infectious individual for 15 consecutive minutes. The new guidance defines close contact as spending a total of 15 minutes of contact with an infectious person over the course of a 24-hour period. Specifically, the CDC guidance states that close conduct occurs when:
Someone 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.
* Individual exposures added together over a 24-hour period (e.g., three 5-minute exposures for a total of 15 minutes). Data are limited, making it difficult to precisely define “close contact;” however, 15 cumulative minutes of exposure at a distance of 6 feet or less can be used as an operational definition for contact investigation.
According to the CDC COVID-19 exposure guidelines, factors to consider when defining close contact include:
- Proximity (closer distance likely increases exposure risk),
- The duration of potential exposure (longer exposure time likely increases exposure risk),
- Whether the infected individual has symptoms of COVID-19 (the period around onset of symptoms is associated with the highest levels of viral shedding),
- If the infected person with COVID-19 was likely to generate respiratory aerosols (e.g., was coughing, singing, shouting), and
- Other environmental factors (crowding, adequacy of ventilation, whether exposure was indoors or outdoors).
Significance to Employers
Because brief interactions can expose employees to COVID-19, following safety procedures and policies (such as social distancing, wearing masks and contact tracing) is as important as ever. Under the new guidance, a singular positive COVID case in the workplace can potentially expose many more coworkers and individuals who will then be forced to self-quarantine as a result of their exposure. This could impact staffing issues.
Here are some strategies the CDC suggests to reducing the risk of exposure:
- Implement flexible worksites (e.g., telework).
- Implement flexible work hours (e.g., rotate or stagger shifts to limit the number of employees in the workplace at the same time).
- Increase physical space between employees at the worksite by modifying the workspace.
- Increase physical space between employees and customers (e.g., drive-through service, physical barriers such as partitions).
- Use signs, tape marks, or other visual cues such as decals or colored tape on the floor, placed 6 feet apart, to indicate where to stand when physical barriers are not possible.
- Implement flexible meeting and travel options (e.g., postpone non-essential meetings or events in accordance with state and local regulations and guidance).
- Close or limit access to common areas where employees are likely to congregate and interact.
- Prohibit handshaking.
- Deliver services remotely (e.g., phone, video, or web).
- Adjust your business practices to reduce close contact with customers — for example, by providing drive-through service, click-and-collect online shopping, shop-by-phone, curbside pickup, and delivery options, where feasible.
- Move the electronic payment terminal/credit card reader farther away from the cashier, if possible, to increase the distance between the customer and the cashier.
- Shift primary stocking activities to off-peak or after hours, when possible, to reduce contact with customers.
The new CDC guidance serves as a somber reminder that COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus that can spread easily in the workplace. In light of the CDC’s revised definition of close contact, employers should alter their workplaces to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure.
The guidance also reminds us that our understanding of the novel coronavirus is evolving and, therefore, we must continue to regularly monitor CDC guidelines and developments.
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