CDC Changes Definition of “Close Contacts” for Contact Tracing Purposes: What Does This Mean for Employers?
By Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice
I. The New CDC Definition of Close Contacts
On October 21, 2020, the CDC published a new definition of “Close Contact” for contact tracing purposes. This new definition will affect how employers determine Close Contacts for purposes of internal contract tracing to limit and prevent exposures and spread of the coronavirus within the workplace. The new CDC definition can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/contact-tracing/contact-tracing-plan/appendix.html#contact Quoting from the CDC link:
“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.
* Individual exposures added together over a 24-hour period (e.g., three 5-minute exposures for a total of 15 minutes). Data are limited, making it difficult to precisely define “close contact;” however, 15 cumulative minutes of exposure at a distance of 6 feet or less can be used as an operational definition for contact investigation. Factors to consider when defining close contact include proximity (closer distance likely increases exposure risk), the duration of exposure (longer exposure time likely increases exposure risk), whether the infected individual has symptoms (the period around onset of symptoms is associated with the highest levels of viral shedding), if the infected person was likely to generate respiratory aerosols (e.g., was coughing, singing, shouting), and other environmental factors (crowding, adequacy of ventilation, whether exposure was indoors or outdoors). Because the general public has not received training on proper selection and use of respiratory PPE, such as an N95, the determination of close contact should generally be made irrespective of whether the contact was wearing respiratory PPE. At this time, differential determination of close contact for those using fabric face coverings is not recommended.”
Previously, CDC had defined “Close Contact” to mean someone who spent at least 15 consecutive minutes within six feet of a person confirmed to be have COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.
II. What Does the New Definition Mean for Employers (Outside the Healthcare Industry)
Under CDC guidance, an employer should quarantine any Close Contact employee, i.e., the Close Contact employee should not be allowed on the worksite and should be told to quarantine per CDC guidance. If the Close Contact develops symptoms or tests positive, in which case the Close Contact becomes an infected person who is in isolation per CDC guidance. Notably, the CDC also states that, at this time, whether an infected person or the exposed person was wearing a mask during the exposure period does not affect the determination of a Close Contact for these purposes. However, the CDC does recognize that the determination of a Close Contact is “difficult to precisely define” and suggests that other factors may be considered, such as whether the infected person had symptoms at the time of exposure, whether the infected person was engaged in activities “likely to generate respiratory aerosols,” and environmental conditions, such as whether the exposure occurred indoors and the adequacy of indoor ventilation.
Per CDC guidance, the quarantine period is for 14 days, which typically means that the employee is not at the worksite, but can work remotely if their circumstances, including any labor agreement, so allows. The CDC recognizes, however, that a mandatory worksite quarantine period for Close Contacts could cause severe consequences for employers of “Critical Infrastructure Workers,” typically as defined by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (“CISA”). Thus, the CDC provides an exception to the 14-day worksite quarantine for asymptomatic Critical Infrastructure Workers – they may continue to work at the standard workplace(s) if they adhere to protective measures prior to and during their work shift, including: pre-screening and regular monitoring for fever and other symptoms; wearing a face mask “at all times while in the workplace;” maintaining at 6-foot distance and practice social distancing “as work duties permit;” and working in areas that are frequently cleaned, including common areas and commonly shared equipment.
Although the CDC suggests that determinations of close contact can be affected by factors other than proximity and duration of exposure, it provides no guidance on how to account for those other factors in the course of the determination. Most employers are going to need to rely on clearly defined and easily understood rules, so that a workplace contact tracing program can be appropriately administered. Thus, most employers likely will continue to rely only on the more easily determined proximity and duration factors.
As a result of CDC’s change to the definition of Close Contact to include anyone in close proximity within a cumulative 15-minute period, rather than a consecutive 15-minute period, more employees may be designated as Close Contacts and, therefore, more employees may need to be precluded from working on-site, particularly those who cannot be classified as Critical Infrastructure Workers. Although an employer typically cannot prevent an exposure from occurring outside the workplace, an employer’s best “defense” to potential coronavirus exposure in the workplace, and the resulting Close Contact designation, is adherence to and enforcement of 6-foot distancing for all workplace activities, both during more social activities (such as in breakrooms, cafeterias, restrooms) and during job tasks.
Other Related CDC Sites:
Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on these matters, as well as other important COVID‑19 related guidance, as they unfold.
On October 8, 2020, the Conservation Law Foundation filed a lawsuit challenging a DOJ policy that barred the use of supplemental environmental projects (SEPs) in federal enforcement settlements with private parties. SEPs have been used since the 1980s and typically involve a project intended to provide some tangible environmental or public health benefit that could not necessarily be compelled by U.S. EPA.
DOJ, in a March 12, 2020 memorandum, announced that it was terminating its policy of allowing companies to agree to perform SEPs in exchange for reductions in civil penalties in environmental enforcement settlements. According to DOJ, the practice of using SEPs in lieu of civil penalties violates the Miscellaneous Receipts Act, a statute that prevents cash from legal settlements being diverted from the Treasury to third parties. As further described in the March 2020 DOJ memorandum, DOJ claims that the SEPs basically substitute payments to third parties for payments to the Treasury, circumventing Congress’ Constitutional power of the purse.
The lawsuit claims that DOJ’s conclusion that the use of SEPs violates the Miscellaneous Receipts Act is arbitrary and capricious and otherwise lacks reasoned decision-making. The lawsuit highlights U.S. EPA’s history of using SEPs and its various guidance documents encouraging the use of SEPs in environmental enforcement matters. The lawsuit asks that the Court declare that DOJ’s March 2020 memo violates the Administrative Procedures Act, vacate the memo, and enjoin DOJ from implementing or relying on the memo in the future. .
We will continue to provide updates on this lawsuit as well as other important environmental, health and safety issues on Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer Blog.
On Friday, October 2, 2020, the United States Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to review of a decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals holding that climate change litigation brought against various fossil fuel were not subject to federal court subject matter jurisdiction. While the Supreme Court’s review is limited to a somewhat narrow, jurisdictional question regarding the ability of an appellate court to review a district court’s order remanding a case to state court, the decision will likely have far reaching impacts on whether the growing number of climate changes cases in the United States will be litigated in state or federal courts.
As previously discussed by the Corporate Environmental Lawyer, the underlying litigation involves claims asserted in Maryland state court by the City of Baltimore against various fossil-fuel companies for damages associated with Climate Change. In its complaint, Baltimore asserted claims against the industry for public nuisance, private nuisance, strict liability failure to warn, strict liability design defect, negligent design defect, negligent failure to warn, trespass, and violations of Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act.
In response, the fossil fuel companies sought to remove the action to federal court. However, the district court remanded the case back to state court after finding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the asserted claims following the lead of several other district courts that have decided similar issues. On March 6, 2020, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s remand order. Importantly, the Fourth Circuit found that its appellate jurisdiction was limited to reviewing the district court’s conclusion that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Federal-Officer Removal Statute pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d) and 28 U.S.C. § 1442 notwithstanding that the fossil fuel companies had raised and the district court ruled on additional arguments in support of the removal petition. The Fourth Circuit found that it lacked jurisdiction to consider whether the district court should have granted removal to federal court on these alternative grounds.
With respect to the Federal Officer Removal Statute, the Fourth Circuit rejected the companies’ arguments that the case belonged in federal court because the companies had entered into fuel supply and strategic petroleum reserve agreements with the federal government. The court concluded that these contractual agreements failed to establish that the companies were “acting under” the direction of a federal officer and were “insufficiently related” to Baltimore’s claims. On March 31, 2020, the fossil-fuel companies filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court, seeking review of the question of whether the statutory provision prescribing the scope of appellate review of remand orders “permits a court of appeals to review any issue encompassed in a district court’s order remanding a removed case to state court…” The companies argued that the Fourth Circuit had improperly ignored several alternative grounds justifying removal of the case to federal court, including that federal common law governs claims of interstate air pollution.
While the Supreme Court’s review of the case will be limited to the appellate jurisdictional question, the decision will undoubtedly influence the growing trend of climate change litigation. At present, twenty-one U.S. States and numerous municipalities have brought lawsuits in state court against the fossil fuel industry for damages related to climate change. In nearly all such cases, the industry has sought to remove the case to federal court where it is believed the companies have a better chance of successfully securing dismissals on the grounds that such claims are preempted by the Clean Air Act and/or addresses a “political question” which is better left to the discretion of Congress. Thus, the Supreme Court’s decision will likely impact the ability of the fossil fuel industry to seek appellate review of unfavorable district court remand orders.
On August 30, 2020, the California legislature passed the Toxic Free Cosmetics Act making California the first state to ban certain chemicals from cosmetics. Governor Newson signed the bill into law on October 1, 2020. The new law amends existing regulatory programs in California and provides that cosmetics containing any of a specific list of 24 chemicals will be considered “adulterated” and therefore unable to be sold in California. The specific list of chemicals includes certain phthalates and formaldehyde. However, the chemicals that have received the most attention are various per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances. Although some states have previously implemented legislation banning certain chemicals in cosmetic products (Minnesota banned formaldehyde in certain children’s personal care products; Washington requires that certain chemicals in children’s products be reported), California has become the first state to implement such a broad ban on these listed chemicals in cosmetics generally.
The ban will take effect on January 1, 2025 providing companies with time to take the necessary steps to eliminate any of the 24 listed chemicals from their cosmetic products. Of course, many companies have already taken steps to eliminate these chemicals from their products especially since many of these chemicals are already on California’s Proposition 65 list. However, unlike with Proposition 65 where compliance can be demonstrated by the provision of the requisite warnings, the Toxic Free Cosmetics Act will require elimination of these chemicals (with the exception of unavoidable trace quantities).
We will continue to provide regulatory updates as more states are likely to follow California’s lead in regulating these chemicals in various personal care products.