In late 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance on quarantining: In certain circumstances, individuals potentially exposed to COVID-19 by being in “close contact” with a person who tested positive can take steps to reduce the length of the standard 14-day quarantine period.
The new recommendations, however, come with significant caveats and stringent prerequisites. Despite the simplified messaging contained in the media announcement, the CDC still maintains the safest course of action is for a close contact to quarantine for 14 days. Also note the new advice has no impact on the agency’s previously issued isolation guidance for people who test positive.
Pros and Cons of Shorter Quarantine Periods
The CDC said it was issuing the new recommendations, in part, in recognition of the significant economic, physical, and mental health burdens associated with a 14-day quarantine. If the agency offers options for people to shorten their quarantines, albeit with strict requirements (subject to local public health authority approval), it believes the public may be more willing to comply with the guidance. Also, the CDC hopes a less burdensome quarantine period will encourage more cooperation with local governments’ contact tracing efforts.
Employers must understand, however, the new recommendations come with increased risks for postquarantine transmission and were based on the best information available in November 2020. As a result, the CDC was reserving the right to monitor the evolving science and reconsider its advice over time.
Accordingly, you should be cautious in deciding whether to change your current COVID-19 policies because of the increased risk inherent in permitting employees to return to the workplace sooner than the 14-day quarantine period would allow.
What CDC Recommends
The CDC generally recommends close contacts should quarantine for 14 days after their last interaction with the coronavirus-positive individual. During the period, potentially exposed individuals should watch for a fever (100.4 F), cough, shortness of breath, or other virus symptoms identified by the agency.
The CDC’s 14-day quarantine period is based on the estimates of the upper bounds of the COVID-19 incubation period. The agency estimates the postquarantine transmission risk is between 0.1% and 3% for an individual who ends the isolation after 14 days. By advising close contacts to quarantine, the agency is seeking to reduce the risk that infected persons may unknowingly transmit the virus to others.
Options to Reduce 14-Day Quarantine Period
While stressing it still endorses 14 days of isolation, the CDC now provides for two additional options for close contacts to shorten their quarantine periods:
10-day quarantine, no testing. Close contacts can conclude their quarantine after 10 days without testing if they experience no COVID-19 symptoms during their daily monitoring. The CDC notes the approach still comes with risk, estimating the postquarantine transmission risk for an individual who quits quarantining after 10 days is between 1% and 10%.
7-day quarantine with testing. Close contacts can end their quarantine after only 7 days if they receive a negative COVID-19 test result and haven’t experienced any symptoms during daily monitoring. The specimen should be collected and tested within 48 hours before the time that an individual plans on concluding the quarantine.
According to the CDC, the postquarantine transmission risk for a close contact who ends the isolation after seven days is between 5% and 12%.
Additional Requirements to End Quarantine Early
According to the CDC, the following requirements also must be satisfied for quarantines to conclude before the 14th day:
- Close contacts must experience no symptoms during the entirety of the quarantine period;
- They must continue to monitor their symptoms through day 14; and
- They must be counseled to adhere strictly to all of the CDC’s recommended nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) through day 14.
The NPIs include (1) correct and consistent mask use, (2) social distancing, (3) hand and cough hygiene, (4) environment cleaning and disinfection, (5) crowd avoidance, and (6) locations with adequate indoor ventilation.
Should You Change Your Current COVID-19 Policies?
By this time, you should have a written COVID-19 policy that has been disseminated to the workforce. In addition to setting forth the basic infection prevention measures you’ve put in place, the policy should establish clear protocols for employees to follow if they need to quarantine based on close contact or because they’ve experienced symptoms and/or tested positive for the virus.
Before changing the length of the quarantine period for potentially exposed individuals, keep in mind a 14-day stint is still the safest option to minimize postquarantine transmission. If you want to lower the 14-day period, consider the potential risks. The primary risk is that by bringing employees back in after only 10 or as few as 7 days, the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to coworkers and customers will be higher.
In addition, if you decide to permit a shorter quarantine period, you’ll need to have confidence the employees will strictly adhere to all of the CDC’s recommended additional requirements, such as socially distancing from other workers and wearing a face mask at all times. If you have concerns about their willingness to comply or your own ability to enforce the recommendations, you may want to delay making any changes and await further guidance from the agency.
Take the opportunity to review your COVID-19 policies and practices and ensure they’re up to date with the many changes in this rapidly developing area of the law.
Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed across the nation, employers are faced with a new challenge: requiring mandatory vaccination in the workplace. Learn how to identify legal issues employers should consider when developing policies and practices related to the new COVID-19 vaccine with a new instructive webinar, on Wednesday, February 3, 2021. Click here to learn more, or to register today.
For more information, please contact Douglas Solomon, partner and chair of Genova Burns LLC’s OSHA practice group at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Paul Mazer, an attorney with the firm, at email@example.com. Their offices are in Newark, New Jersey.