The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released another new COVID-19 guideline, this time as it pertains to those who are considered in “close contact” with someone who is infected with the coronavirus.
The CDC previously defined close contact as being within 6 feet of someone infected with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes or more. The updated guidance now defines close contact as being within 6 feet of someone with the virus for a cumulative total of 15 minutes (or more) over a 24-hour period.
The updated guidance came along with a report on Wednesday that examined cases of the virus in a Vermont prison. Health experts found a prison employee was infected with COVID-19 in August after 22 interactions with people who ended up testing positive for the virus later on. The interactions totaled 17 minutes over the course of the employee’s shift, and at least one of the asymptomatic individuals infected the employee.
The report stated that the prison worker wore protective gear, including a cloth face mask. The infected individuals also wore masks during most of their interactions, but there were several incidents where they did not. Those interactions took place in a prison cell doorway and a recreation room.
So, aside from this being somewhat alarming (like everything involving COVID-19), what exactly does this new definition mean for us in general? Below is a quick breakdown.
The 15-minute mark isn’t the be-all, end-all for a COVID-19 infection.
Don’t think of this timing as a strict countdown, like Cinderella before midnight. The coronavirus can still be transmitted in a shorter or longer amount of time. The amount or intensity of exposure is what matters here, according to Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security and an infectious disease expert.
“There was nothing ever ‘magical’ about 15 minutes, that was just what the epidemiology was showing when most transmission occurred,” Adalja told HuffPost. “There are instances where a person has multiple contacts that are less than 15 minutes over a course of a day. That puts them at significant risk for contracting the virus.”
The new definition will have the biggest effect on areas like schools and offices.
The pool of individuals considered close contacts will get a lot bigger with this new guidance ― especially when you consider interactions in schools and businesses, Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told The Washington Post.
“It’s easy to accumulate 15 minutes in small increments when you spend all day together — a few minutes at the water cooler, a few minutes in the elevator, and so on,” Rivers said. “I expect this will result in many more people being identified as close contacts.”
Adalja noted that it may be a challenge for workplaces to figure out how this fits in to their day-to-day function. You don’t want people to be overly worried and disrupt workflow as a result, and you also don’t want to dismiss it and put people at risk.
“I think that is going to be difficult trying to operationalize this,” he said. “Because the goal is not to have a self-quarantine reflexively. You want to be able to have only those people who are actually at significant risk self-quarantine. So the challenge is going to be taking that new guidance and determining how it applies to an individual person.”
This can impact contact tracing as well.
The new guidance certainly adds a challenge to tracing COVID-19 exposure. The increase of the pool means there’s more people to contact and, depending on their level of exposure, more people to request to isolate or quarantine.
“Hopefully the CDC provides further technical guidance to state and local health departments to help them implement this so that when their contact tracers are doing these types of investigations, they have a clear way of learning how to delineate who is a significant exposure versus someone who is not,” Adalja said.
Most of all, this underscores the fact that everyone should wear a damn mask.
We keep hearing this advice for a reason: Face masks are essential. Data has repeatedly shown that wearing one can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19, and their use is applicable to this new guidance as well.
“If you’re wearing a face covering, that’s not really considered a significant exposure,” Adalja said. In other words, if you’re around someone who is sick and you’re both wearing masks, it’s less of a risk ― the 15-minute mark aside.
“This emphasizes social distancing and face coverings and the need to do that,” along with avoiding larger crowds and practicing good hand hygeine, Adalja added.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.