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15 Total Minutes of Contact May Increase COVID Risk

photo of crowded subway train

Oct. 21, 2020 -- People who have brief but repeated contacts with people who carry the virus that causes COVID-19 may be at risk for catching it themselves, according to new guidance out today from the CDC.

The change significantly expands the definition of who is a “close contact” of someone infected with COVID.

Previously, the agency said that a person needed to be within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 consecutive minutes to be considered a “close contact” and subject to quarantine. Now, a person is at risk of infection if they’ve accumulated 15 minutes of close contact within a 24 hour period.

The CDC changed its definition of a close contact in response to an outbreak investigation at a prison in Vermont. There, a 20-year-old employee caught COVID after 22 brief interactions -- about a minute each -- with people who later tested positive over the course of his workday. All told, he spent about 17 minutes with people who were infected but not showing symptoms during his 8-hour shift, according to video footage that recorded his interactions with prisoners.

The employee wore a cloth mask, gown, and eye protection during all of his interactions. The prisoners he interacted with were wearing masks during most of the encounters, with the exception of a few contacts with people as they stood in the doors of their cells or in the prison gym.

“CDC is science-based and data-driven, and as a consequence as we get more data to understand the science of COVID, we're going to continue to incorporate that in our recommendations,” CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, said in a news briefing on Wednesday.

The CDC recommends wearing a mask, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing as key methods to prevent COVID infection.

WebMD Health News Brief

Sources

News briefing, CDC, Oct. 21, 2020.

MMWR: "COVID-19 in a Correctional Facility Employee Following Multiple Brief Exposures to Persons with COVID-19 — Vermont, July–August 2020."

CDC: Coronvirus Disease 2019.

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