On Oct. 21, 2020, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a new definition for the term “close contact” as it relates to contact with a person infected with COVID-19 and the resulting quarantine period. Notably, the new definition, in practice, represents a drastic departure from the CDC’s prior definition of the same term. As many U.S. States—and thus, employers—across the country have likely incorporated the prior definition into their orders, policies, and practices in response to COVID-19 and quarantine requirements, the CDC’s release of this new definition is a critical development with many immediate implications.
Under the CDC’s prior definition, “close contact” in relation to COVID-19 exposure, was defined as having been within six (6) feet of an infected person for a continuous fifteen (15) minutes or more. While the new CDC definition of “close contact” still retains both the six (6) foot radius and the fifteen (15) minute duration, it slices and dices the time period quite differently.
Specifically, under the new CDC definition, “close contact” is defined as having been within six (6) feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of fifteen (15) minutes or more over a twenty-four (24) hour period of time. Under the new definition, the twenty-four (24) hour period starts to run from two (2) days before the onset of the illness (or, for asymptomatic persons, two (2) days prior to a positive COVID-19 test being conducted) until the time that the infected person is isolated.
In the new definition, the CDC also offers a series of factors to review in order to help guide the analysis of whether the facts of a specific interaction fall under the definition of “close contact”. Those factors include the following:
- Proximity – when the interaction with the infected person occurs at a closer distance, that increases the likelihood of exposure;
- Duration of Exposure – when the interaction with the infected person is of longer duration, that increases the likelihood of exposure;
- Infected Person Showing Symptoms – the time period around the onset of symptoms is associated with increased levels of viral shedding;
- Infected Person Generating Respiratory Aerosols – for example, was the infected person coughing, talking, shouting, etc; and
- Other Environmental Factors – for example, did the exposure take place indoors, was it crowded where the exposure took place, did the place of exposure have adequate ventilation.
Additionally, per the CDC, even if a person was utilizing respiratory personal protective equipment (PPE) or a cloth face covering at the time of exposure, the same should not be given deference in determining whether or not “close contact” with an infected person occurred or otherwise.
So, why does this slight change make such a big difference? As a practical matter, the new CDC definition results in the expansion of the universe of those who are defined to have had “close contact” with a person infected with COVID-19, and thus, are advised (and in some cases, required) to quarantine for fourteen (14) days.
For example, under the prior CDC definition, someone who spent ten (10) consecutive minutes within six (6) feet from an infected person, followed by another five (5) consecutive minutes within six (6) feet from the same infected person only one (1) hour later, would not be defined as having had “close contact” with the infected individual. Thus, the affected person would not necessarily need to quarantine, because the fifteen (15) total minutes of exposure were not continuous. However, under the new CDC definition, the same analysis would, in fact, result in the opposite outcome because the exposure, in its entirety, totals fifteen (15) cumulative minutes over a twenty-four (24) hour period of time.
As the new CDC definition has expanded the pool of persons who should quarantine, the same, as a logistical matter, could very likely have an unintended domino effect for employers. Indeed, if it is now, in effect, easier to meet the CDC’s definition of “close contact”, and thus, easier to fall into the pool of people who are required to quarantine for fourteen (14) days, that could, in turn, have a dramatic impact on an employer’s available labor force. In many ways, all it would take is one (1) employee who had been exposed to an infected person having a cumulative total of fifteen (15) minutes in a twenty-four (24) hour period of time within six (6) feet of another employee to, potentially, result in, at best, a mass workplace quarantine, or at worst, a mass workplace outbreak.
As such, it is readily apparent that employers must respond accordingly in order to minimize the risk of such a catastrophic occurrence. Social distancing requirements and all other elements of an employer’s “Return-to-Work” plan need to be stringently followed and enforced. Further, to the extent current “Return-to-Work” policies do not completely encompass the implications of the revised CDC definition of “close contact”, including its resulting quarantine requirement, steps should be taken to immediately update and recirculate the same on a company-wide basis. In many ways, as we enter the Fall and Winter seasons—and in light of the increase in COVID-19 cases around the country—such extra vigilance and effort may even make the difference between a business that survives the pandemic and one that, unfortunately, becomes yet another corporate casualty.
Does your business have the tools and policies in place to protect itself and its employees as the pandemic continues to rage? Are you unsure of where to start to even answer that question? You’re not alone. KJK and its Employment Law team are here to give you peace of mind. For further guidance on these issues, please contact Robert S. Gilmore (firstname.lastname@example.org; 216.736.7240), Alan M. Rauss (email@example.com; 216.736.7221), or another member of our Employment Law team by calling 216-696-8700.