The CDC made it much more difficult for employers, schools, and businesses to determine who should be quarantined when a confirmed positive COVID-19 infection occurs. A close contact is now defined as being within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 cumulative minutes in a day–versus 15 consecutive minutes at one time.

Last week, on October 21, 2020, the CDC updated its guidelines on what it means to be in “close contact” with someone who has COVID-19. Previously, the guidance defined a “close contact” as when a person is within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 consecutive minutes. The CDC updated that definition to state that the 15 minutes are cumulative over a 24-hour period. The relevant time period of exposure is 2 days before symptoms started or 2 days prior to the positive COVID-19 test and runs through the time the infected person began isolation. The CDC makes no distinction based on whether the infected person or the person in close contact were wearing facial coverings; however, many county health departments do make this distinction in defining close contacts for purposes of ordering quarantine.

What prompted the change? There was evidence that cumulative short interactions can result in transmission of COVID-19–even when wearing facial coverings. Further, some schools were rotating children every 14 minutes to avoid anyone being “exposed” under the CDC guidance.

For employers, this now means that, for each employee with a confirmed case of COVID-19, employers will need to add up the time each employee was in contact with the infected employee during each workday. If at all possible, potentially exposed employees (even without symptoms) should work from home for 14 days. If ordered by the local health department to quarantine, the employee should return to work when released from quarantine.

As a reminder, employees with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 should remain home until:

  • If not tested or waiting for results, at least 24 hours passed since there was a fever (without fever reducing medication) and other symptoms have improved AND 10 days passed since symptoms began;
  • If tested positive for COVID-19 and symptomatic, at least 24 hours passed since there was a fever (without fever reducing medication) and other symptoms have improved AND 10 days passed since symptoms began; or
  • If tested positive for COVID-19 and asymptomatic, at least 10 days passed since the positive test.

Requiring negative test results for a return to work is not advised.