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Employers will have to revise their COVID-19-related safety policies and practices to meet new guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on what it means to have been in “close contact” with an infected person.
Under prior guidance, the CDC defined a close contact as someone who spent at least 15 consecutive minutes within six feet of an infected person, thus putting the individual at higher risk of contracting the virus.
The CDC updated its guidance to define a close contact as:
“We are now looking at cumulative rather than consecutive,” said Jonathan A. Segal, an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia. So a person who was exposed three times in a 24-hour period—for five minutes during each encounter—would meet the definition.
“This broader definition most likely will have a big impact on schools, hospitals and workplaces where individuals have several separate interactions with others—totaling 15 minutes or more—over the course of a day,” said Catherine Burgett, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd in Columbus, Ohio.
What should employers do in light of the new guidelines? “Revise your current policies and forms based on the new definition of close contact and … wear a mask,” Burgett said.
An important consequence of this revision is the impact it will have on employers’ ability to maintain staffing because it establishes a much lower threshold trigger for required quarantine.
Employers should have infected employees identify others who worked within six feet of them, for 15 minutes or more, within the 48 hours prior to the sick individual showing symptoms. This is being called this the “6-15-48 analysis.”
This new guidance will make contact tracing using the CDC’s 6-15-48 analysis even more difficult. When determining whether an employee has been exposed to an infected worker for 15 minutes or more, employers will now need to look at brief interactions between employees and infected workers that may occur several times a day, instead of one or two prolonged exposures.
The CDC advises most employers to send home any employees who have had a risk of exposure under this analysis. Those employees should maintain social distancing and self-monitor for 14 days from the exposure.
All industries will be impacted, but the most significant impact will be to those businesses that are not considered to be critical infrastructure workplaces. Those businesses will find that more employees will be required to be quarantined under this new rule, and thus will have fewer employees available to work in their facilities.
If a business is considered essential, however, CDC guidelines say exposed employees can continue to work onsite while self-monitoring and wearing a face mask. Employers that are considered critical infrastructure will be less impacted, because even their directly exposed employees can still work, as long as they are asymptomatic and the company takes the steps required by the CDC.
As a result of the new definition of close contact, employers should review their COVID-19-related infection-control plans with this new definition in mind and, at a minimum, update their contact-tracing questionnaires.
Instead of simply asking infected workers who they were near for a prolonged period of time, employers may want to view surveillance video, documents that show when an employee clocked in and out, and other items that will help determine workers’ interactions.
Employers may also want to consider obtaining a waiver from the infected worker in order to share his or her diagnosis. This will allow the employer to interview employees about their interactions with the worker to determine who was exposed to the infected individual.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of encountering a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 among your employees as you reopen your business is identifying those employees who worked near the infected worker – and thus must also be quarantined. Luckily, there is a simple numerical sequence you can remember that will enable you to follow the CDC contact tracing guidelines for general businesses: 6-15-48.
You will need infected employees to identify others who worked within 6 feet of them, for 15 minutes or more, within the 48 hours prior to the sick individual showing symptoms, or later.
Remembering these three numbers will offer you an easy way to navigate the CDC’s often complex and confusing guidance.
Determine Who Worked Within 6 Feet Of The Infected Employee
The first step requires you to inquire with the infected employee about those who worked within close proximity of them. The CDC generally defines a direct exposure to COVID-19 as an individual who is a household member with an infected person, intimate partner with an infected person, or an individual who has had close contact (< 6 feet) for a prolonged period of time with an infected individual.
For Those Who Worked Within 6 Feet, Was It For 15 Minutes Or More?
Another challenge for employers during this pandemic has been the constantly changing guidance from government agencies on how to address various workplace topics. The CDC’s definition of “prolonged period of time” is no exception. The current CDC guidance on this issue states that “recommendations vary on the length of time of exposure, but 15 minutes of close exposure can be used as an operational definition.” Thus, after identifying the employees who worked within six feet of the individual worker, you should determine if any remained within that proximity of the sick employee for 15 minutes or more.
Was The Direct Exposure For A Prolonged Period Of Time During The 48 Hours Before The Infected Employee Exhibit Symptoms Or Later?
The CDC defines the key period of time for determining if an employee was exposed to an infected worker as the “period from 48 hours before symptoms onset until” the infected employee is cleared to discontinue self-isolation. For purposes of contact tracing, the key here is to look at the 48 hours before the sick employee had symptoms and was still working in the workplace. If a sick employee worked on Monday and Tuesday, started showing symptoms at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, and immediately left the workplace, you should look for employees working near them starting at 8:00 a.m. on Monday.
Ask The 6-15-48 Employees To Remain Home For At Least 14 Days
After following the above three steps, you have identified the 6-15-48 employees. Although asking the sick employee to identify these workers is likely the best contact tracing tool, you may want to check video surveillance to confirm the accuracy of the 6-15-48 employees the sick worker identifies.
Once identified, the CDC guidance for non-critical businesses provides that the 6-15-48 employees should take the following steps:
If your company is part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, you may follow different CDC guidelines in lieu of quarantining 6-15-48 employees who are asymptomatic. However, all companies can use the guidance above to identify exposed, or 6-15-48, workers.
As orders allowing businesses to reopen continue to be issued, you will face new legal and practical challenges in the workplace. Addressing confirmed COVID-19 cases in your workplace will unfortunately become reality for many employers. Now is the time to prepare for such an event. This a constantly evolving area, with new guidance being issued nearly every day.