CDC redefines COVID-19 close contact, adds brief encounters

Shoppers wear face coverings to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

U.S. health officials Wednesday redefined what counts as close contact with someone with COVID-19 to include briefer but repeated encounters.

For months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said close contact meant spending a solid 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone who tested positive for coronavirus. On Wednesday, the CDC changed it to a total of 15 minutes or more — so shorter but repeated contacts that add up to 15 minutes over a 24-hour period now count.

The change may prompt health departments to do contact tracing in cases where an exposure might previously have been considered too brief, Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious diseases expert, told the Associated Press.

The revised guideline stems from a CDC report released Wednesday on a 20-year-old male correctional officer in Vermont who had several brief encounters with six inmates who later tested positive for COVID-19.

This event happened in late July to mid-August, and the CDC did not name the correctional facility. 

The officer was repeatedly within six feet of infected inmates for about one minute at a time, which ultimately added up to 17 minutes of exposure, according to an investigation that involved video footage.

While inmates wore cloth masks most of the time, they didn’t wear masks in the recreation room, or during a few brief encounters in cell doorways. The officer wore protective gear but came down with coronavirus symptoms a week later.

The CDC update now defines close contact as "someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period* starting from 2 days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to test specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated." 

It marks the second coronavirus-related update that the agency has made in recent weeks, with the first addressing airborne transmission. On Oct. 5, the agency revised its coronavirus guidance to acknowledge the potential for infection through virus-laden particles lingering in the air in enclosed areas with poor ventilation. The revision came two weeks after the CDC issued a correction on its website, saying a draft of proposed changes, including guidance on airborne transmission of coronavirus, was posted in error.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.