One of the most confusing aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak has been the emphasis on “contact tracing.” In essence, contact tracing involves identifying those people with whom an infected person has recently come in contact to determine those individuals the person might have infected with the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) have published contact tracing guidelines for businesses, although they can be a bit confusing. But the guidance boils down to the following: infected employees must identify others who worked within 6 feet of them, for 15 minutes or more, within the 48 hours prior to showing symptoms, or later.

1. Who Worked Within 6 Feet of the Infected Employee?

The first step requires employers to inquire with the infected employee about those who worked within close proximity of them. The CDC generally defines a direct exposure to COVID-19 as an individual who is a household member with an infected person, intimate partner with an infected person, or an individual who has had close contact (less than 6 feet) for a prolonged period of time with an infected individual.

2. For Those Who Worked Within 6 Feet, Was It For 15 Minutes or More?

The current CDC guidance on the issue of prolonged contact states that “recommendations vary on the length of time of exposure, but fifteen (15) minutes of close exposure can be used as an operational definition.” Thus, after identifying the employees who worked within six feet of the individual worker, employers should determine if any remained within that proximity of the sick employee for fifteen (15) minutes or more.

3. Was the Direct Exposure for a Prolonged Period of Time During The 48 Hours Before the Infected Employee Exhibit Symptoms or Later?

The CDC defines the key period of time for determining if an employee was exposed to an infected worker as the “period from 48 hours before symptoms onset until” the infected employee is cleared to discontinue self-isolation. For purposes of contact tracing, the key metric is the 48-hour period before the sick employee had symptoms and was still working in the workplace. For example, if a sick employee worked on Wednesday and Thursday, started showing symptoms at 8:00 a.m. on Friday, and immediately left the workplace, you should look for employees working near them starting at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday.

4. Ask Exposed Employees to Remain Home For at Least 14 Days

After following the above three steps, you have identified through contact tracing those other employees who were potentially exposed to the sick employee. Once identified, the CDC guidance for non-critical businesses provides that the exposed employees should take the following steps:

  • Stay home until 14 days after last exposure and maintain social distance (at least six feet) from others.
  • Self-monitor for symptoms.
    • Check temperature twice a day.
    • Watch for fever, cough, or shortness of breath.
  • Avoid contact with people at higher risk for illness (unless they live in the same home and had same exposure).
  • Follow CDC guidance if symptoms develop.