The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance to public health agencies on December 2 to provide options to reduce the duration of quarantine periods for asymptomatic individuals who were exposed to coronavirus (COVID-19). Although the CDC still recommends a 14-day quarantine period after exposure, the guidance offers two alternatives that public health agencies may choose to adopt: (1) individuals may stop quarantining after 10 days without testing, provided they have no symptoms, or (2) they may stop quarantining after 7 days if they test negative for COVID-19 using a diagnostic test within 48 hours before the planned end of the quarantine.
The revised guidance is a significant departure from prior CDC guidance, which provided that individuals who had been exposed to COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days with limited exceptions. In the new guidance, the CDC explained that based on additional scientific data, they were able to analyze the chance of residual post-quarantine transmission risk and determined that under both of the shorter quarantine scenarios, the chances of post-quarantine transmission are quite low. The CDC rationalized that given the burdens an extended quarantine period can cause, a shorter quarantine period may now be permitted for asymptomatic persons.
Ultimately, the CDC guidance is just that—guidance. Employers should continue to follow state and local requirements regarding quarantine periods. But given many states’ general reliance on or specific adoption of CDC guidance for required quarantine periods, this change could have a significant impact on the workplace and permit employers to return exposed employees to in-person work in less than 14 days.
Specifically, the updated guidance states that the 14-day quarantine recommendation remains in effect, and further reiterates that local public health authorities are responsible for determining and establishing quarantine options for their jurisdictions. However, this guidance offers two ways for people to shorten the quarantine period:
Under either scenario, individuals can only discontinue quarantine at these time points if they meet each of the following criteria:
The CDC noted that while quarantine periods are important, a “14-day quarantine can impose personal burdens that may affect physical and mental health as well as cause economic hardship that may reduce compliance.” Further, the CDC acknowledged that implementing quarantines can cause additional burdens on public health systems and communities, especially during periods of rapidly rising infection rates. The CDC also explained that the prospect of a mandatory 14-day quarantine may dissuade recently diagnosed persons from naming their close contacts or may motivate potential close contacts from responding to contact tracer outreach if they perceive the length of quarantine as an onerous burden. Therefore, the CDC explained that “[r]educing the length of quarantine will reduce the burden and may increase community compliance.”
Despite providing guidance on how to reduce the quarantine period, the CDC also stated that individuals can continue to be quarantined for 14 days without testing per existing recommendations. The CDC specifically described the 14-day quarantine period as an option that “maximally reduces risk of post-quarantine transmission risk and is the strategy with the greatest collective experience at present.”
As always, CDC guidance is just guidance, and state and local requirements and recommendations are going to control in this instance. Many states and localities have their own guidance/rules regarding 14-day post-exposure quarantines, and it may take some time for these jurisdictions to change their guidance. Additionally, as the CDC clearly recommends that individuals continue to quarantine for 14 days after exposure, some local health authorities may not revise their guidance based on these new shorter quarantine options.
While employers may be eager to modify their quarantine policies to reduce the time they will require employees to quarantine after exposure, employers should ensure that making these changes is in line with the guidance from local health authorities where they operate.
Additionally, although the described risk of continued transmission is low if individuals follow the new CDC guidance, these options do not eliminate the risk of continued transmission entirely. Therefore, employers might consider keeping a 14-day quarantine policy in place where business needs do not require an individual to return to work sooner. Instead, where permitted by local guidance and operationally possible, it may be worthwhile to rely on one of these shorter quarantine requirements only for essential personnel, so long as the revised policy is applied on a consistent basis.
We have developed many customizable resources to support employers’ efforts in safely returning to work. These include tracking of state and local orders on return to work requirements and essential/nonessential work; policy templates and guidelines for key topics such as social distancing procedures, temperature testing, and workplace arrangements for high-risk employees; and webinar training on safety measures for return to work. View the full list of return to work resources and consult our workplace reopening checklist.
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