Oct 21, 2020 - Health

CDC changes "close contact" guidance for COVID-19

Photo collage of newspaper clippings with cutout of a red virus in the middle. Photos of healthcare and essential workers.

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Noam Galai, Jamie McCarthy, Josep LAGO / AFP, Alfredo ESTRELLA / AFP, and Narayan Maharjan/NurPhoto, all via Getty Images

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its definition of who is considered a “close contact” of an individual infected with the coronavirus in a report released Wednesday.

Why it matters: The update is likely to pose challenges for schools, workplaces and other group settings as the U.S. prepares for a third coronavirus wave. It also reinforces the importance of masks in the face of President Trump’s repeated attempts to belittle their efficacy.

Where it stands: The CDC now defines a “close contact” as someone who has been within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more across a 24-hour period. The guidance was previously described as someone who spends more than 15 consecutive minutes within six feet of an infected individual.

  • The change has significant implications, making contact tracing more difficult and requiring rigorous adherence to social distancing guidelines.
  • It could also lead to a jump in confirmed cases due to increased testing.

The state of play: The change came about due to a COVID-19 case that developed following multiple brief exposures in a Vermont correctional facility over the summer.

  • On July 28, six incarcerated people arrived from an out-of-state facility. They were all asymptotic and housed in a quarantine unit.
  • The same day, a prison employee spent an estimated 17 minutes within six feet of the six people in 22 separate encounters. He wore a mask, gown, goggles and gloves. In some of the interactions, the inmates did not wear masks.
  • The next day, all six people tested positive.
  • The employee did not meet the definition of a “close contact” at the time, so he continued to work. He tested positive after developing symptoms a week later.
  • The correctional officer reported no close contact with anyone who had the virus outside of work, the report said. Investigators concluded “his most likely exposures occurred in the correctional facility” in the series of encounters.

What they’re saying: “[I]t’s critical to wear a mask because you could be carrying the virus and not know it,” the CDC said in a statement, according to the Washington Post. “While a mask provides some limited protection to the wearer, each additional person who wears a mask increases the individual protection for everyone."

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