The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its COVID-19 guidelines earlier this month. According to the CDC, high levels of immunity and enhanced prevention/treatment options greatly reduced the risk of medically significant COVID-19 illness, hospitalizations, and death. These improved circumstances prompted the CDC to promote more sustainable, long-term measures, with fewer disruptions to daily life. While not completely overhauling prior recommendations as to organizations, employers, and businesses, the new guidelines signal a shift in focus. Employers should be aware of three key changes.
1. Quarantine Guidance Updates
Previously, the CDC recommended a five-day or longer quarantine period for anyone exposed to the COVID-19 virus if they were unvaccinated or had not received their booster vaccine. The new guidance no longer recommends any quarantine period for asymptomatic individuals exposed to COVID-19 regardless of vaccination status, as long as they remain asymptomatic. Instead, the CDC now recommends that asymptomatic individuals exposed to COVID-19 wear a mask for 10 days and get tested the fifth day after exposure. Consistent with the previous guidelines, individuals who become symptomatic (or who test positive) should continue to immediately self-isolate.
Employers should review existing policies related to indoor masking and exposure notification. This update suggests that even unvaccinated, asymptomatic employees may immediately return to the workplace after exposure. However, exposed employees should continue to wear a mask for the full, recommended 10 days, even if they test negative for COVID-19 during that time period.
2. Screening and Testing Guidance Updates
The CDC continues to recommend that exposed individuals submit to COVID-19 testing, whether or not they experience symptoms. However, the new guidance recommends organizational screening or surveillance testing programs for persons with no known exposure only in “high risk” settings (for example, long-term care facilities, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities).
For employers, this update tracks the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) July 2022 revision to its COVID-19 guidance. Based on the current COVID-19 landscape (and the factors mitigating risk to the general community described above), the EEOC no longer presumes that COVID-19 testing is job-related and consistent with business necessity—as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employers planning to implement COVID-19 screening are now required to conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether the present pandemic circumstances justify COVID-19 screening.
Employers whose workplace is not in a high-risk setting (such as those listed above) should evaluate any general screening or testing procedures for compliance with CDC and EEOC guidance in this area. Factors to consider in seeking compliance with the ADA and the EEOC include: (1) current transmission levels, (2) employees’ vaccination status, (3) the transmissibility of current COVID-19 variant(s), (4) the accuracy and speed of processing different types of COVID-19 viral test, (5) working conditions, and (6) the potential impact on operations.
3. Continued Guidance for Protecting At-Risk Individuals
The CDC has long prioritized protecting at-risk individuals. The new guidance continues to recommend that individuals remain up-to-date on their vaccinations and take advantage of all preventative and therapeutic mechanisms to reduce the risk of severe illness. The CDC also encourages mitigation of risk through non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as proper ventilation, use of masks or respirators indoors, and testing. All persons should wear masks in public where COVID-19 community levels are high. Those infected with the virus should continue to self-isolate. Infected persons may end isolation after five days, only if they are without fever for more than 24 hours without the use of medications and all other symptoms have improved.
The CDC’s new guidance reflects a desire to balance the protection of the most at-risk with the desire of the general community to return to pre-COVID social, professional, and familial life. COVID-19 appears to be here for the long haul, and employers must continue to look for policies that are both practical and sustainable in the long-term. Employers should take this opportunity to revisit their policies to reflect these new guidelines, while continuing to stay up to date on the recommendations of the science and healthcare communities, as well as the guidance of the regulating bodies like the EEOC and the CDC.