New guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on what constitutes “close contact” with a person infected with COVID-19 will require many employers to update their COVID-19-related safety practices and policies.

Previously, the CDC had defined a “close contact” as someone who was within six feet and spent at least 15 consecutive minutes in the presence of an infected individual. The CDC has now updated that guidance as follows:

Someone who was within six feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period starting from two days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, two days prior to test specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated.

The CDC advises employers to send any employee home who meet the standards laid out in its new guidance. Those employees are advised to self-monitor for 14 days following exposure and to maintain social distancing.

Taking Necessary Action

Because the new definition creates a lower threshold for determining employees that have been in close contact with an infected individual (and thus required to quarantine), some employers may find it challenging to maintain necessary staffing levels.

In addition, it will undoubtedly be more difficult for employers to conduct contact tracing using the updated CDC guidance. It is recommended that employers ask all confirmed or probable COVID-19-infected employees to identify others who have worked within six feet of them for 15 or more cumulative minutes within 48 hours of the infected individual showing symptoms. In addition, employers may want to view surveillance video and other tools at their disposal that could help them gauge worker interactions accurately.

At the least, employers will need to look at revising their social distancing and contact tracing protocols to minimize incidental contact with potentially infected individuals. For businesses that are considered essential, the CDC says that employees that have already been exposed to COVID-19 can continue to work as long as they are asymptomatic, continue to self-monitor and wear a mask.