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By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
I. The New CDC Definition of Close Contacts
On October 21, 2020, the CDC published a new definition of “Close Contact” for contact tracing purposes. This new definition will affect how employers determine Close Contacts for purposes of internal contract tracing to limit and prevent exposures and spread of the coronavirus within the workplace. The new CDC definition can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/contact-tracing/contact-tracing-plan/appendix.html#contact Quoting from the CDC link:
“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.”
Previously, CDC had defined “Close Contact” to mean someone who spent at least 15 consecutive minutes within six feet of a person confirmed to be have COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.
II. What Does the New Definition Mean for Employers (Outside the Healthcare Industry)
Under CDC guidance, an employer should quarantine any Close Contact employee, i.e., the Close Contact employee should not be allowed on the worksite and should be told to quarantine per CDC guidance. If the Close Contact develops symptoms or tests positive, in which case the Close Contact becomes an infected person who is in isolation per CDC guidance. Notably, the CDC also states that, at this time, whether an infected person or the exposed person was wearing a mask during the exposure period does not affect the determination of a Close Contact for these purposes. However, the CDC does recognize that the determination of a Close Contact is “difficult to precisely define” and suggests that other factors may be considered, such as whether the infected person had symptoms at the time of exposure, whether the infected person was engaged in activities “likely to generate respiratory aerosols,” and environmental conditions, such as whether the exposure occurred indoors and the adequacy of indoor ventilation.
Per CDC guidance, the quarantine period is for 14 days, which typically means that the employee is not at the worksite, but can work remotely if their circumstances, including any labor agreement, so allows. The CDC recognizes, however, that a mandatory worksite quarantine period for Close Contacts could cause severe consequences for employers of “Critical Infrastructure Workers,” typically as defined by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (“CISA”). Thus, the CDC provides an exception to the 14-day worksite quarantine for asymptomatic Critical Infrastructure Workers – they may continue to work at the standard workplace(s) if they adhere to protective measures prior to and during their work shift, including: pre-screening and regular monitoring for fever and other symptoms; wearing a face mask “at all times while in the workplace;” maintaining at 6-foot distance and practice social distancing “as work duties permit;” and working in areas that are frequently cleaned, including common areas and commonly shared equipment.
Although the CDC suggests that determinations of close contact can be affected by factors other than proximity and duration of exposure, it provides no guidance on how to account for those other factors in the course of the determination. Most employers are going to need to rely on clearly defined and easily understood rules, so that a workplace contact tracing program can be appropriately administered. Thus, most employers likely will continue to rely only on the more easily determined proximity and duration factors.
As a result of CDC’s change to the definition of Close Contact to include anyone in close proximity within a cumulative 15-minute period, rather than a consecutive 15-minute period, more employees may be designated as Close Contacts and, therefore, more employees may need to be precluded from working on-site, particularly those who cannot be classified as Critical Infrastructure Workers. Although an employer typically cannot prevent an exposure from occurring outside the workplace, an employer’s best “defense” to potential coronavirus exposure in the workplace, and the resulting Close Contact designation, is adherence to and enforcement of 6-foot distancing for all workplace activities, both during more social activities (such as in breakrooms, cafeterias, restrooms) and during job tasks.
Other Related CDC Sites:
Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on these matters, as well as other important COVID‑19 related guidance, as they unfold.