CDC’s New (Inconsistent?) Guidance on Quarantining for Fully-Vaccinated Individuals
On February 11, 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated materials on its website pertaining to when individuals should quarantine after exposure to someone with COVID-19. Specifically, on the “When to Quarantine” page on its website, the CDC now states that “[p]eople who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 are not required to quarantine if they have been fully vaccinated against the disease within the last three months and show no symptoms.” The CDC added similar language to its “When You Can be Around Others After You Had or Likely Had COVID-19” page, stating that “[s]omeone who has been fully vaccinated within the last three months and shows no symptoms of COVID-19” does not need to stay home after having close contact with a person with COVID-19.
While this update is welcome news for many employers and will lessen the staffing and economic impact on businesses from quarantine requirements as more individuals get vaccinated, the updated language is curiously inconsistent with the CDC’s primary guidance to health departments, upon which many of the state and local public health authorities base local requirements and recommendations. Specifically, the CDC’s Public Health Guidance for Community-Related Exposure continues to state that individuals who have close contact with a person with COVID-19 should quarantine—without an exception for those who have been fully vaccinated. While this guidance was last updated on December 3, 2020, and it is possible that the CDC has overlooked or is in the process of updating the public health guidance, it is a notable distinction. The CDC’s guidance to employers states that “[m]ost workplaces should follow the Public Health Recommendations for Community-Related Exposure,” which, as noted above, have not been updated to include any exception for vaccinated individuals. Similarly, the CDC has not updated its principal quarantine recommendations for healthcare workers to provide for any exception for vaccinated individuals, though the CDC did recently (on February 10, 2021) include a comparable exception for vaccinated persons in the healthcare setting within a document discussing clinical considerations for the vaccine.
What should employers make of these seemingly inconsistent guidance documents? First, it is likely that the CDC’s intent is to provide a broad exception to its quarantine recommendations for those who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (i.e., both doses in the case of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) and who are not experiencing COVID-19–related symptoms, but that the CDC has not yet fully reflected the change in its other various guidance documents pertaining to quarantine recommendations. However, employers may want to keep in mind that in many jurisdictions, it is ultimately the guidelines and requirements of state and local public health authorities that control what employers should be doing in their respective jurisdictions. While there may be a strong desire to exempt vaccinated individuals from quarantine practices, employers may wish to wait for state and local guidelines to provide for such exceptions or consult with local public health authorities before implementing the change.
Second, the recent CDC update provides encouragement that attaining higher rates of vaccination in the workplace ultimately will allow for a lessening of other mitigation measures, such as strict quarantines, which have posed numerous logistical and economic challenges to many employers over the past year. In the meantime, however, employers may want to take note that receiving a vaccine does not, and is not expected to for at least some time, alleviate the need to adhere to other mitigation measures, such as wearing masks and social distancing. According to the CDC’s Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 Vaccination, individuals should continue to wear masks and avoid close contact with others even after receiving both doses of the vaccine.