On Wednesday, October 21, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expanded its guidelines regarding what is considered a “close contact” exposure to a person infected with COVID-19. Previous CDC guidance stated that a close contact existed if a person was within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 consecutive minutes. The CDC’s revised guidance now states that a close contact is considered to have occurred if a person was within six feet of an infected individual “for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.” According to the CDC guidelines, the time period for determining whether a close contact occurred is the period starting from two days before the infected person developed symptoms, and for asymptomatic persons, two days prior to test specimen collection, until the time the infected person is isolated.

This new definition of “close contact” was apparently made because it was determined that a prison guard in Vermont became infected after being within six feet of several inmates for a total of approximately 17 minutes over a 24-hour period, but not within six feet of any one of them for at least 15 consecutive minutes. While some may question whether this isolated incident and the CDC’s reasoning are sufficient to support its change in the definition of “close contact,” it is clear that the change will significantly impact employers. As a result of this change, employers are now faced with a more expansive and complicated CDC standard for determining when an employee has had a close contact exposure to a person infected with COVID-19 and, therefore, should isolate. Rather than simply determining if an employee was within six feet of an infected person for 15 or more consecutive minutes, under the CDC guidelines, employers will now have to determine if an employee was within six feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.

New York State employers must also be aware that the New York State Department of Health’s (NYSDOH) definition of “close contact” differs from that of the CDC. Under NYSDOH guidelines, a close contact exists if a person was within six feet of an infected person for at least 10 consecutive minutes starting from 48 hours before the onset of symptoms, and for asymptomatic cases, from two days prior to specimen collection, until the time the infected person is isolated.

In light of the differing CDC and New York State definitions of “close contact,” New York State employers should apply both standards when determining if a close contact has occurred and require employees to isolate if they qualify as having had a close contact under either standard.

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