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CDC Redefines COVID Close Contact; Now Includes Cumulative Exposure

By Steve Donovan on Nov 10, 2020
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cdc redefines close contact covid 19

As the world continues struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, we are learning more about the virus as health officials continue studying it. Up until recently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended quarantining for 14 days and coronavirus testing if someone came into close contact with an individual who ended up having a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. The definition of close contact has recently been updated.

Previous CDC Definition of Close Contact

Until the recent announcement of the new COVID close contact definition, the CDC recommended quarantining for 14-days and coronavirus testing for people who had come into close contact with someone with COVID-19. The previous definition of close contact was being “within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more.”

That included direct physical contact such as kissing and hugging, sharing silverware or glasses while eating and drinking, caring for someone at home sick with COVID-19 and/or getting respiratory droplets on them from sneezing, coughing or other exhalations.

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Updated Definition Includes Cumulative Exposure

On October 21, 2020, the CDC issued an updated definition of close contact with someone who has COVID-19 that requires quarantine.

The new definition of close contact is being “within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.” This is further explained with examples, like five exposures of three minutes during a 24-hour period for a total exposure of 15 minutes.

Legal experts like Eric Conn and Kara Maciel recommend that employers review their COVID-19 control strategies with the new definition and update contact tracing questionnaires with the cumulative exposure periods included. Ask about multiple close contacts shorter than 15 minutes during any 24-hour time frame when asking about exposure. The CDC recommends determination of close contact should be made whether or not masks are worn.

Conn and Maciel note that the new definition will impact staffing as it establishes a different threshold trigger for quarantining. It will require tallying multiple short-duration contacts over a time-frame during a 24-hour period. They note that some states had already interpreted the close contact trigger as a cumulative period or had established a shorter duration trigger.


It should be noted that the new definition of close contact was prompted by a study of contact tracing at a correctional facility. A correctional facility employee contracted the virus after having 22 interactions that totaled 17 minutes with infected individuals over an 8 hour work shift.

Association of State and Territorial Health Officials Chief Medical Officer Marcus Plescia notes the new definition of close contact should not cause “undue alarm” as it is based on only one case study. Additionally, he noted that “if infection after short interactions were widespread we would see much higher infection rates.”

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