Among the precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 is social distancing. In the workplace, that generally means being at least 6 feet away from another person. In this regard, we all should remember that it generally is not social distancing or wearing a mask, but social distancing and wearing a mask.
There are many circumstances where an individual may have a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. One of them is “close contact,” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with a person who has COVID-19. Historically, for purposes of COVID-19, close contact has been defined as being within 6 feet of a person with COVID-19 for at least 15 consecutive minutes. That standard was changed last week by the CDC and has important implications for employers.
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. (Emphasis added.)
Accordingly, an employee may have had close contact with a co-worker who has or is suspected of having COVID-19 even if they have not been within 6 feet of each other for 15 consecutive minutes. By way of example, three individual exposures of five minutes each in a 24-hour period would be enough to equal close contact.
This change is relevant in terms of contact tracing. It is also critical in terms of how employers manage on-site operations. A few minutes of close contact here and there are now of greater concern.
Further, most employers require employees (and others) to report certain circumstances that may result in their remaining out of the workplace for some period of time. These circumstances include, by way of example only, having a fever or other possible symptoms of COVID-19 or having close contact with a person having or suspected of having COVID-19. The new CDC definition must be considered in any reporting requirements relevant to close contact.