Coronavirus (COVID-19)

CDC Redefines ‘Close Contact’ for COVID-19 Purposes

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has informed the public that “close contact” with infected persons poses a high risk of contracting the virus. The agency recently updated its guidance on exactly what close proximity means.

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‘Within 6 Feet of Infected Person’

Previously, the CDC defined close contact as spending at least 15 consecutive minutes within 6 feet of an infected person. On October 21, however, the agency issued updated guidelines defining close contact as being within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. The definition applies without regard to whether face masks were used by either the newly infected person or the person(s) with whom the close contact occurred.

The CDC moved to change the definition after a Vermont corrections officer became infected following several brief interactions with six coronavirus-positive inmates. The officer had 22 different, fleeting encounters with infected inmates that lasted a total of only 17 minutes overall—none coming close to the 15 minutes cited in the earlier guidelines.

One expert noted the huge impact the new definition will have on “workplaces, schools and other places where people spend all day together off and on.” Another added, “This will mean a big change for public health when it comes to contact tracing and for the public generally in trying to avoid exposure.”

Employers and contact tracers must adjust correspondingly because more resources will be required to accurately identify a newly infected individual’s multiple brief interactions over a 24-hour period. Moreover, the number of people required to quarantine under the updated guidance is almost certain to increase.

Accordingly, you should anticipate and prepare for the staffing shortages that might result from the CDC’s new guidelines. To ensure compliance, you should continue to update your policies, procedures, and record keeping practices.

Stay Vigilant

Although it sometimes feels as though the pandemic has been around forever, it’s still relatively new, and we’re learning more about it all the time. Remain vigilant about maintaining your protective measures while also keeping a watchful eye out for any changes in the recommended protocols.

Dennis J. Merley is an attorney with Felhaber Larson in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can reach him at Kau J. Guannu also contributed to the article.