KEY POINTS

  • The CDC has amended its definition of "close contact" to include repeated short exposures to infected persons
  • The shift comes after a report found that a Vermont prison employee contracted COVID-19 despite not having long exposures to any infected inmates
  • The report also highlights the importantance of wearing masks even for short encounters

The Centers for Disease Control has amended its definition of close contact regarding COVID-19 to include multiple short exposures.

A report on a prison employee found that several short encounters with a COVID-19 infected person could be as significant as one exposure of 15 minutes or more. The guidelines now define close contact as being “within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.”

The watchtower of Terminal Island federal prison near Los Angeles, where some 60 percent of the inmate population has tested positive for COVID-19 The watchtower of Terminal Island federal prison near Los Angeles, where some 60 percent of the inmate population has tested positive for COVID-19 Photo: AFP / ROBYN BECK

The change was made after a joint report between the CDC and Vermont prison officials investigated a case in which a prison employee contracted the virus despite having very limited contact with infected inmates, the Hill reports.

The employee interacted with infected prisoners 22 times over the course of his 8-hour shift, with only short windows of exposure.

In total, the employee spent 17 minutes interacting with prisoners, but previous guidelines would have placed him in the clear due to the encounters themselves being much shorter.

The CDC report also emphasized that some of the inmates were not wearing masks, highlighting the importance of doing so to prevent transmission even during very short exposures.

Earlier this month the CDC changed its guidelines to reflect findings that COVID-19 can spread through airborne transmission at distances of up to six feet. Indoor spaces with poor ventilation are particularly risky.