CDC Updates Definition of ‘Close Contact’ as it Relates to COVID-19

On October 21, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated its definition of “close contact” for purposes of determining whether employees have been exposed to COVID-19.

The CDC now defines Close Contact as follows: 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. Factors to consider when defining close contact include proximity (closer distance likely increases exposure risk), the duration of exposure (longer exposure time likely increases exposure risk), whether the infected individual has symptoms (the period around onset of symptoms is associated with the highest levels of viral shedding), if the infected person 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). Because the general public has not received training on proper selection and use of respiratory PPE, such as an N95, the determination of close contact should generally be made irrespective of whether the contact was wearing respiratory PPE. At this time, differential determination of close contact for those using fabric face coverings is not recommended.

The decision by the CDC to update the definition of “close contact” is likely to, among other things, make contact tracing even more challenging for employers. In light of this development, employers should consider the following:

  • Update the definition of “close contact” in self-attestation forms which employees are required to complete before returning to the office;
  • Revise the definition of “close contact” as used in other documents pertaining to COVID-19 (such as a return to work policy and form to be completed by visitors or guests who desire to enter an office);
  • Make sure that human resource professionals and others who are serving as “gatekeepers” in determining when and under what circumstances employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19 may return to work are fully aware of this new definition of “close contact”;
  • Carefully review documents that they may receive from doctors and other healthcare providers regarding the condition of employees diagnosed with COVID-19 (or who experienced COVID-19 symptoms), with an eye towards information about individuals with whom the employee has been in “close contact”;
  • Review contact tracing procedures to account for the factors outlined in the CDC’s new definition of “close contact”; and
  • Require that all employees participate in mandatory training before they return to the office (or to a client site).

Marc R. Engel is an employment attorney experienced in providing successful strategies for managing employees and preventing employment claims. For more information on what your company should consider when it comes to coronavirus in the workplace, contact Marc at 301-657-0184 or [email protected].