ATLANTA — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday redefined what it means to have “close contact” with someone who has been infected with the coronavirus, a change that greatly expands the pool of people considered to be at risk of contracting COVID-19.
The CDC now describes a close contact as someone who has spent at least 15 minutes in a 24-hour period within 6 feet of an infected individual. It previously defined it as someone who spent 15 consecutive minutes within 6 feet an infected person.
The revision is likely to have its biggest impact in schools, workplaces and other group settings and could affect how people gather as the weather turns colder.
The change comes, at least in part, in response to a small outbreak at a Vermont correctional facility over the summer. A corrections officer there tested positive for the virus after having 22 brief interactions during his eight-hour shift – for a total of about 17 minutes – with six new inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 the following day.
Because the corrections officer’s interactions with the prisoners did not meet the CDC definition of a close contact, he continued to work rather than quarantining before experiencing symptoms a week later.
The CDC included a report on the outbreak in its weekly morbidity and mortality update Wednesday.
“This article adds to the scientific knowledge of the risk to contacts of those with covid-19 and highlights again the importance of wearing face masks to prevent transmission,” the agency said.
The CDC recommends people wear masks in public settings when social distancing cannot be maintained.
The updated guidance also comes as the United States is experiencing its third wave of coronavirus cases. The country’s seven-day average of new cases is more than 59,000.
In a press briefing Wednesday, Dr. Jay Butler, the CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases, said the agency has seen a "distressing trend" in which COVID-19 case numbers are "increasing in nearly 75% of the country."
If someone has had close contact with an individual infected with COVID-19, the CDC recommends that person stay home for 14 days after their last contact, be alert for symptoms and, if possible, stay away from others, especially those who at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus.