Shorter COVID-19 Isolation and Quarantine Periods Will Impact Workplaces
UPDATE: Following its original announcement, the CDC further updated its guidance to apply the 5 day quarantine rule to those who are asymptomatic but now also to those whose symptoms are resolving (without fever for 24 hours). The guidance now also includes a reminder that applicable local laws continue to apply and that the recommendations do not apply to healthcare workers (for whom the CDC has issued separate guidance). This post has been updated to reflect these changes.
The CDC announced changes on December 27, 2021 to its isolation and quarantine period recommendations for those who test positive or are exposed to COVID-19. Our guidance for the workplace follows.
Updated CDC Guidance (which also applies to individuals who physically enter or are expected to enter a workplace):
1. Isolation Period May Be Reduced for Certain Individuals Who Test Positive.
The CDC reduced its recommended isolation period from 10 to 5 days for asymptomatic individuals who test positive, regardless of vaccination status. After the 5 day isolation period, if the individual is still asymptomatic, the individual no longer needs to isolate, but should wear a mask for an additional 5 days when in contact with others.
If, however, symptoms appear, the individual should remain in isolation consistent with current CDC or local public health authority guidance. (The CDC currently recommends that individuals with COVID-19 isolate until at least 10 days has passed since symptoms appeared (or 7 days after receiving a negative test result), the symptoms improve, and the individual is fever free for 24 hours without the aid of fever-reducing medications.)
2. Some Individuals Must Quarantine When Exposed to an Infected or Suspected Infected Person, While Others Do Not.
Individuals who had a close contact with someone with COVID-19 or suspected to have COVID-19, and either: (1) completed the primary series of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine over 6 months ago and have not received the booster shot; or (2) completed the primary series of Johnson & Johnson over 2 months ago and have not received the booster shot; or (3) are unvaccinated, should quarantine for 5 days, and then mask for an additional 5 days when around others. While the CDC notes that if a 5-day quarantine is not feasible (without explaining what “not feasible” means), the individual does not have to quarantine. If not quarantining, the CDC emphasizes that it is critical that the individual wear a well-fitting mask at all times around others for 10 days after exposure.
Those who have received their booster shot or are within the 6-month and 2-month vaccination periods do not have to quarantine, but should wear a mask for 10 days after their exposure.
The CDC also recommends, however, that the exposed individual should get a PCR test on the 5th day after close contact to the extent possible and cautions that, if the individual develops symptoms, the individual should remain in quarantine until testing negative.
What This Means For the Workplace:
These changes reflect the CDC’s recommendation based on current science developed around COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, including currently known information regarding the COVID-19 booster shot’s ability to restore effectiveness against infection. While not discussed in the CDC’s press release, the shortened isolation and quarantine periods also appear aimed at alleviating the staffing and economic burdens imposed on employers by the lengthy employee isolation/quarantine periods. But, as discussed below, the new recommendations may have a limited impact without enforcement of employer masking and COVID-19 reporting policies.
Employers may update their existing COVID-19 isolation and quarantine protocols and policies to reflect these new recommendations and should send appropriate communications to their workforce. However, employers should also remember to confirm whether any stricter state or local requirements are still in effect. Further, unless prohibited by applicable law, employers may adopt their own more rigorous isolation and quarantine requirements, including testing conditions before an exposed or infected individual may return to the workplace.
The CDC’s updated recommendations underscore the importance of enforcing masking and COVID-19 reporting policies in the workplace. Infected or exposed employees may be returning to work early or not quarantining at all, and the risk of infection can only be further minimized by diligent enforcement of these policies. The failure to do so could result in additional workplace exposures and COVID-19 cases.
Employers implementing OSHA’s vaccine rule (see our previous post on that rule here) or other applicable state or local vaccination rules should also consider the impact of the CDC’s updated recommendations on their reporting and return to work requirements for infected and exposed employees. While the OSHA vaccine rule permits employees to return to work if the employee meets the CDC’s criteria outlined above, it also provides that individuals can return to work if they have a negative COVID-19 NAAT test or receive a “return to work” recommendation from a licensed healthcare provider. It remains to be seen whether OSHA will further update its existing interpretative rule guidance in light of these recommendations, including ahead of the hearing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding its enforceability.
We will continue to provide updates on the CDC’s recommendations as we receive them.