Just when we thought we had mastered the glossary of COVID-19 terms, earlier this month the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued an Order changing the definitions of “close-contact,” and the “infections period.”
“Close contact” no longer means being within six feet of a COVID-19 positive individual during that individual’s “infectious period” for at least 15 cumulative minutes over a 24-hour period. The CDPH eliminated the six-foot rule, and replaced it with being in the “same indoor airspace” (e.g., home, clinic, waiting room, airplane, etc.). The rest of the rule remains intact.
The “infectious period” now is defined as follows:
- For symptomatic infected persons, for two days before the infected person had any symptoms through day 10 after symptoms first appeared (or through days five through 10 if the individual tests negative on day five or later), and 24 hours have passed with no fever without the use of fever-reducing medications, and symptoms have improved
- For asymptomatic infected persons, for two days before the first positive COVID-19 specimen collection date through day 10 (or days five through 10 if the individual tests negative on day 5 or later)
Notably, because the CDPH made these changes in an Order (and not merely through “guidance”), these same definitions apply under the Cal/OSHA ETS to the exclusion of “close contacts.” As a result, more employees will be considered close contacts, and entitled to exclusion pay under the ETS. And, more employees will be entitled to COVID-19 exposure notices.
The CDPH’s June 20, 2022, Isolation & Quarantine Q&A provides additional guidance (no, not an order this time) on the new “close contact” definition:
How should entities respond to a potential exposure when using this updated definition?
Because COVID-19 is airborne, it can travel within indoor spaces, and large indoor spaces may create close contacts. When responding to a potential exposure, entities may prioritize the response by:
- Identifying close contacts who may be considered “high-risk contacts” based on their proximity to the case in the setting, the duration or intensity of their exposure, and/or their greater risk of severe illness or death from an exposure. Although SARS-CoV-2 is airborne, those closest to the infected person will be at greatest risk of exposure.
- Determining any smaller spaces within the larger indoor setting for the purposes of assessing potential exposure. For example, individual rooms, waiting areas, bathrooms, or break or eating areas within larger areas could be identified as the shared airspace area. When a larger indoor space cannot be easily divided into smaller discrete spaces, then close contacts may be determined based on proximity to the positive case, particularly in high-risk settings where close contacts might be considered for quarantine, cohorting, or work exclusion. Viral particles are less likely to concentrate in larger indoor spaces (e.g., department store or indoor shopping mall, or warehouse, gymnasium) so only those closer to the infectious person or in a more enclosed shared airspace would be considered at great enough risk of becoming infected to be called a close contact.
- Determining any transient exposures totaling <15 minutes, such as passing in a hallway. Those with transient exposures would not meet the definition of close contact.
So, what does it mean for an employer to “prioritize” its response? Your guess is as good as mine. And, the Q and A does not change the treatment of “close contact” under the ETS (because the Q and A is not an order).
Our advice? Do your best to comply with the CDPH order. If the new definition of close contact would result in your sending just about everyone home due to a COVID-19 exposure, then you may have some wiggle room under the Q and A.