On August 11, 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new Summary of Guidance for Minimizing the Impact of COVID-19 on Individual Persons, Communities, and Health Care Systems. Observing that increasing levels of vaccination and recovery immunity to COVID-19 have “reduced the risk for medically significant illness and death” in the United States, the CDC is no longer recommending that individuals exposed to COVID-19 be quarantined as a precaution. Instead, the revised guidance focuses on boosters, masking and testing to limit infections, and isolation of symptomatic and confirmed positive individuals to prevent COVID-19 spread.
COVID-19 Vaccination and Boosters: The CDC continues to stress that “COVID-19 vaccines are highly protective against severe illness and death,” but that staying up to date with boosters is key to reducing infection and transmission as well as the risk of “post-COVID-19 conditions” or long COVID. The CDC expresses concern about the low booster rate in the United States (roughly 32% of eligible individuals) and notes that “[p]ublic health efforts need to continue to promote up-to-date vaccination for everyone.” Omicron-variant-specific boosters, which are anticipated to become available in September 2022, will undoubtedly play a large role in future efforts to contain the pandemic.
Post-Exposure Masking, Testing, and Precautionary Quarantine: Previously, individuals who were exposed to COVID-19, but not up to date with COVID-19 boosters, were told to quarantine for five days and self-monitor for symptoms as a precaution. In practice, this meant that employees who were exposed to COVID-19 needed to be excluded from the workplace. This created obvious difficulties in settings where remote work was not feasible and paid or unpaid time off was unavailable or had been exhausted. The new guidance no longer distinguishes exposed individuals based on their vaccination status, but rather eliminates precautionary quarantine. In lieu of quarantine, the CDC continues to recommend that those who have had a recent confirmed or suspected exposure to COVID-19 should wear a mask for 10 days around others and should be tested for the virus five or more days after the exposure. Those who are actually symptomatic or have tested positive for COVID-19 are instructed to isolate for at least five days or 24 hours after abatement of symptoms, whichever is later, and to wear a mask around others for a full 10 days. It is foreseeable that OSHA will take its cues from this CDC guidance in assessing employers’ COVID-19 infection control efforts.
Screening Without Regard to Vaccination: EEOC recently updated its guidance on COVID-19 testing, recommending that employers monitor CDC guidance with respect to testing programs. Many employers utilize testing as part of their overall COVID-19 safety protocols, particularly in areas where community transmission is high or workforce vaccination rates are low, or as a condition for exemption from workplace vaccination mandates. The current CDC guidance does not address the EEOC guidance or employers explicitly, but does state that “when implemented, screening testing strategies should include all persons, irrespective of vaccination status.” This recommendation acknowledges that testing only unvaccinated individuals can miss the demonstrated risk of breakthrough infections, especially among those who are not up to date with boosters.
In most respects, the CDC guidance consolidates earlier recommendations and confirms the approach that many employers have taken. At the same time, the CDC warns that “COVID-19 remains an ongoing public health threat,” particularly in light of the relatively low booster rate and the possibility of emergent variants that can evade current vaccines and treatments. As individuals continue to return to in-person work in greater numbers, employers will retain an important role in developing “sustainable routine practices” to maintain workplace health and safety. In addition, employers should review local and state-specific guidance, as well as industry and contractual requirements, before modifying their COVID-19 protocols based on the new CDC guidance.