Many employers have COVID Policies and Procedures explaining what employees must do when they are in Close Contact with a confirmed case of COVID. As the days get shorter and colder, it is important that businesses have a clear idea of what a “Close Contact” actually is. In some instances, an employee may claim to have had a “Close Contact,” but in actuality, it is not a Close Contact. Moreover, it is important for businesses to understand the standards in their states, as the definition of Close Contact could be a bit muddled.
Let’s start with the CDC definition of Close Contact:
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.
This means that according to the CDC and individual is deemed to have a Close Contact with a Sick Person if they were within 6 ft. of the Sick Person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes during a 24 hour period 2 days before the Sick Person had symptoms or 2 days prior to the test date. (NOTE: “Test Specimen Collection” is CDC speak for test date.)
So, according to the CDC, if an individual was within 6 ft of a Sick Person for 3 minutes, that is not considered a Close Contact However, if the person was within 6 ft. of the Sick Person for 3 minutes, five different times within a 24 hour period, then that is considered a Close Contact.
It is worth noting that some states use the 10 minute rule as opposed to 15 minutes.
For instance, the Pennsylvania Business Guidance uses the time period of 10 minutes. The PA Secretary of Health Order defines a Close Contact as, “within 6 feet for about 10 minutes…from the period 48 hours before the symptom onset to the time patient isolated.” Notice that the definition does not indicate whether this is cumulative, nor does it take into account asymptomatic positive cases.
Of note is that the Pennsylvania Executive Green Order requires employers to abide by, “all existing and future applicable guidance issued by [the Governor’s] Administration, the Department of Health (DOH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).” Essentially, the Governor requires businesses to abide by both definitions of Close Contact.
When assessing which definition to use, prudent businesses would adopt the more conservative approach which would be the CDC’s cumulative approach, but using the 10 minute threshold total time.
Moreover, the New York Business Guidance contains similar language as in the Pennsylvania Guidance. The New York Guidance reads that a Close Contact is when someone is, “within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 10 minutes starting from 48 hours before illness onset until the time the person was isolated.”
Just like Pennsylvania, the New York Guidance also requires businesses to abide by the CDC standards.
Again, when assessing which definition to use, prudent businesses would adopt the more conservative approach which would be the CDC’s cumulative approach, but using the 10 minute threshold total time.
Discrete Instances Can Count as a Close Contact
In addition to the cumulative 10/15 minute rule, the CDC identifies instances where a discrete act or situation is automatically deemed a Close Contact:
- Individual provided care at home to someone who is sick with COVID-19
- Individual had direct physical contact with the person (hugged or kissed them)
- Individual shared eating or drinking utensils
- Sick Person sneezed, coughed, or somehow got respiratory droplets on the Individual
Employers should confirm which standards apply to their business. Companies must refer to their Governor’s Executive Orders, Business Guidance and if the state requires, the applicable CDC Guidance. As seen above, Pennsylvania and New York require their businesses to abide by the CDC standards along with their state specific standards. If there is a scenario where the state and the CDC conflict, it would be prudent to take the more conservative route.
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