CDC Expands Definition of ‘Close Contact,’ Increasing Pool of People At Risk

By Anna Breuer on 21 October 2020
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Porters at Toronto Pearson International Airport

Health officials in the United States redefined what counts as “close contact” with someone with Covid-19, updating the long-standing guidance as the nation stares a dramatic surge in new virus cases in the face.

Close to the start of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control had said that close contact meant spending a solid 15 minutes within six feet of someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus within a 24-hour period.  On Wednesday, that changed: Cumulative exposures totaling 15 minutes can be as hazardous as 15 sustained continuous minutes of exposure.

CDC officials said that the news underscores the importance of wearing face masks to prevent transmission and shows that the agency’s guidance changes as new information becomes available.

“As we get more data and understand this COVID we’re going to continue to incorporate that in our recommendations,” said the CDC’s director, Robert Redfield, at a press conference on Wednesday in Atlanta.

The CDC now says that close contact was a total of 15 minutes or more of short but repeated contacts, also within 24 hours, and the news means that the virus can be spread far more easily and casually than had previously been believed.  An example of this is when an individual passes someone who has the virus multiple times a day in a hallway if the repeated contacts add up to 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.

Employees at places such as airports and train stations could be more at risk than originally believed, given the vast number of people who pass through busy terminals.

As was the case with the earlier definition, anyone who has been in close contact with someone who has the coronavirus should self-quarantine for two weeks.

The impetus for the change was the case of a 20-year-old correctional officer at a prison in Vermont who contracted the virus in August.  This happened despite the fact that the officer wore a mask, gloves, and goggles and only had brief but multiple encounters with six transferred prisoners, who had not yet tested positive for the virus at the time of the contacts.  Surveillance footage revealed the officer spent a total of 17 minutes in the course of an eight hour shift with the six.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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