On December 2, 2020, the CDC updated its guidelines to provide two options to shorten the time frame for which individuals exposed to COVID-19 are to quarantine. The CDC continues to recommend that individuals who are exposed to COVID-19 quarantine for 14 days after exposure. However, the CDC’s new guidelines provide two alternative options to the 14-day period:

  1. Quarantine can end after 10 days so long as the exposed individual did not exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 during the quarantine period.
  2. Assuming diagnostic testing resources are available and sufficient, quarantine can end after 7 days if the exposed individual receives a negative COVID-19 test and did not exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 during the quarantine period. The testing should take place within 48 hours before the time the individual plans to end the quarantine. This means if the individual wishes to stop quarantining after the 7th day, then the individual may take the test 48 hours before the end of quarantine. Note that the individual must still quarantine for the entire 7-day period even if the individual receives a negative test result prior to the end of quarantine. And, if the individual does not receive the test result by the 7th day, the individual must still quarantine until receiving the negative test result.

The CDC also recommends that if the individual meets the criteria of one of the two alternatives above and ends the quarantine before the 14-day period, the individual must:

  • Continue to monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 through the 14th day following exposure;
  • If the individual has symptoms, immediately self-isolate and contact their local public health authority or healthcare provider;
  • Wear a mask, stay at least 6 feet from others, wash their hands, avoid crowds, and take other steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 until the end of the 14-day period.

The CDC made clear that it “continues to endorse quarantine for 14 days,” and further provided that “Local public health authorities make the final decisions about how long quarantine should last in the communities they serve, based on local conditions and needs. Follow the recommendations of your local public health department if you need to quarantine.”

While the CDC’s quarantine alternatives permit employees to potentially return to work earlier than the 14-day period after exposure to COVID-19, the new guidelines may cause difficulties for employers, particularly multi-state employers. For example, the CDC’s guidance makes clear that local public health authorities can override the alternatives and require a full 14-day quarantine period, making a uniform rule regarding returning to work after exposure difficult for multi-state employers. Additionally, employers will need to consider the availability of testing in the area and determine whether the exposed individual will be able to work in conditions where the individual is able to maintain 6 feet from other employees and avoid crowds for the remainder of the 14-day period. Finally, employers should recognize that, as the CDC indicates, permitting employees to return to work earlier than 14 days after exposure may result in an increased transmission risk.

Employees are likely to have questions for their employers regarding this updated guidance from the CDC. Employers should reach out to a Perkins Coie Labor & Employment attorney to proactively discuss the best strategies for their circumstances.