On December 2, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) issued new guidance, which provides that in certain circumstances, individuals who were potentially exposed to COVID-19 by being in close contact with an individual that tested positive for the virus (“Close Contact”), can take steps to reduce the length of a standard 14-day quarantine period. However, despite the simplified messaging associated with the media coverage on these new recommendations, the advice comes with significant caveats and stringent prerequisites. Employers must understand that the CDC still maintains that the safest course of action is for a Close Contact to quarantine for 14 days. It is also important to note that the new recommendations concerning Close Contacts has no impact on the CDC’s previously issued isolation guidance for people who test positive for the virus.
The CDC is explicit that it is issuing these new recommendations, in part, in recognition of the significant economic, physical and mental health burdens associated with a 14-day quarantine. The CDC believes that if it offers options for people to shorten their quarantines, albeit with strict requirements (subject to local public health authority approval), the public may be more willing to comply with its recommendations. Also, the CDC hopes that a less burdensome quarantine period will encourage more cooperation with local governments’ contact tracing efforts.
However, Employers must understand that these new recommendations come with increased risks for post-quarantine transmission and are based on the best information available in November 2020. As a result, the CDC is reserving the right to monitor the evolving science and reconsider its recommendations over time.
Accordingly, Employers should be cautious in deciding whether to change to its current COVID-19 policies due to the increased risk inherent in permitting employees to return to the workplace in sooner than the 14-day quarantine period.
What is the CDC Recommending?
The CDC generally recommends that Close Contacts should quarantine for 14 days after his/her last contact with the COVID positive individual. During that quarantine period, potentially exposed individuals should watch for a fever (100.4 F), cough, shortness of breath or other symptoms of COVID-19 identified by the CDC.
The CDC’s 14-day quarantine period is based on the estimates of the upper bounds of the COVID-19 incubation period. The CDC estimates that the post-quarantine transmission risk is between 0.1% and 3% for an individual that ends his/her quarantine after 14 days. By recommending that Close Contacts quarantine, the CDC is seeking to reduce the risk that infected persons may unknowingly transmit the virus to others.
Options To Reduce The 14-Day Quarantine Period
While stressing that the CDC still endorses its recommendation to quarantine for 14-days, the CDC now provides for two additional options by which Close Contacts can shorten their quarantine periods:
- 10-Day Quarantine - No Testing
A Close Contact can conclude his/her quarantine after 10 days (instead of 14 days) without testing if the individual experiences no COVID-19 symptoms during his/her daily monitoring. The CDC notes that this approach still comes with risk. The CDC estimates that that post-quarantine transmission risk for an individual that ends quarantine after 10 days is between 1% and 10%.
- 7-Day Quarantine – With Testing
A Close Contact can conclude his/her quarantine after only 7 days if the Close Contact receives a negative COVID-19 test result and has not experienced any COVID-19 symptoms during daily monitoring. The specimen that is tested should be collected and tested within 48 hours before the time that the individual plans on concluding his/her quarantine.
According to the CDC, the post-quarantine transmission risk for a Close Contact that ends quarantine after 7 days is higher than for a 10-day quarantine, i.e., between 5% and 12%.
Additional Requirements To Conclude A Quarantine Early
In addition to the requirements for the respective 7-day and 10-day quarantine periods, the CDC stresses that the following requirements must also be satisfied for any quarantine to conclude prior to the 14th day:
- The individual experiences no symptoms during the entirety of the quarantine period.
- The individual continues to monitor his/her symptoms through Day 14.
- The individual is counseled on the need to strictly adhere to all of the CDC’s recommended non-pharmaceutical interventions (“NPI”) through Day 14. These NPI’s include:
-Correct and consistent mask use,
-Hand and cough hygiene,
-Environment cleaning and disinfection,
-Avoiding crowds, and
-Ensuring that the individual is in locations with adequate indoor ventilation.
Should Employers Change Their Current COVID-19 Policies?
By this time, all employers should have a written COVID-19 Policy that has been disseminated to its workforce. In addition to setting forth the basic infection prevention measures that the Employer has put in place, the Policy should establish clear protocols that employees must follow if they need to quarantine based on close contact, or need to self-isolate because they have experienced COVID-19 symptoms and/or test positive for the virus.
Before an employer considers changing its current 14-day quarantine period for potentially exposed individuals, it needs to keep in mind that a 14-day quarantine is still the safest option to minimize post-quarantine transmission. With that in mind, the employer should consider the potential risks if it wants to lower its current 14-day quarantine requirement. The primary risk to be concerned about is that by bringing the employee back in 10, or as low as 7 days, there is a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission to your employees and customers, as compared to waiting the full 14 days.
In addition to this added risk of transmission, the Employer that permits a Close Contact to return after a shortened quarantine period also needs to have confidence that the employee will strictly adhere to all of the CDC’s recommended additional requirements, such as socially distancing from other workers and wearing a face mask at all times. If the employer has concerns about employees’ ability to comply with these guidelines, or its own ability to enforce the CDC’s recommendations, it may want to delay making any changes to the 14-day quarantine and await further guidance from the CDC.
Employers should take this opportunity to review their COVID-19 policies and practices and ensure they are up to date with the many changes in this rapidly developing area of the law. For more information regarding this and other legal developments resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact Douglas Solomon, Esq., Partner and Chair of the firm’s OSHA Practice Group via email or Paul Mazer, Esq. here or 973-533-0777.