The nation’s federal health authorities on August 11th significantly loosened many COVID-19 recommendations – including dropping the “six-foot” social distancing rule – thereby lightening the burden on employers to manage the virus. Essentially the CDC is putting most of the burden on avoiding and dealing with COVID-19 on individuals instead of employers and businesses. “The current conditions of this pandemic are very different from those of the last two years,” said CDC epidemiologist Greta Massetti accompanying the release of the revised guidance. Rather than attacking the virus in every possible situation, the new guidance reflects the fact that a combination of vaccinations and therapeutics have curbed severe illness and death from COVID-19, and emphasis should now be placed on protecting high-risk individuals. While the CDC’s announcement of revised guidelines comes as a welcome step in the years-long battle against the novel coronavirus, it does not necessarily mean it’s time for employers to drop their guard and pretend that COVID-19 is gone completely.
The CDC’s new guidelines have significant changes
In perhaps the biggest change to the nation’s approach to the virus, the CDC says that the six-foot social distancing rule is no longer emphasized. Although distancing is still one way to mitigate the likelihood of infection, it is now just one of many other methods suggested by the CDC.
The CDC also says that screening apparently healthy employees for potential COVID-19 is no longer necessary. Instead, when considering whether to implement screening for asymptomatic people with no known exposure to COVID-19, the only workplace settings recommended to conduct routine testing include those with congregate housing and limited access to medical care.
The CDC now only recommends case investigation and contact tracing in healthcare settings and certain “high-risk congregate settings” like nursing homes. In all other circumstances, the CDC says that public health efforts should instead focus on notifying those potentially exposed to positive COVID-19 cases and providing accurate information and testing resources to them.
Quarantine of exposed persons is no longer recommended – regardless of vaccination status. This is another significant change, as the CDC previously recommended that unvaccinated individuals quarantine for at least five days after exposure. Instead, the CDC recommends that those who have been exposed to an infected person wear a mask for 10 days around others when indoors in public. They should also test for COVID-19 at least five days after exposure (or sooner if they are symptomatic) – again, irrespective of their vaccination status.
Symptomatic or infected workers
The CDC still recommends that symptomatic or infected persons promptly isolate and remain in isolation for at least five days. If they must be around others, they should wear a well-fitting, high-quality mask or respirator.
The CDC Guidelines on vaccines and masking have not changed
As a reminder, the CDC has no enforcement authority and will not be the agency knocking on an Employer’s door to inspect the workplace for safety compliance. Instead, that falls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or its state equivalents across the country. OSHA is the workplace safety arm of the Department of Labor that has the power to investigate and cite businesses for unsafe conditions. We have already seen OSHA levy massive fines against employers for allegedly not following COVID-19 safety protocols, so this is the agency whose opinion matters most.
Unfortunately, OSHA has not updated its own COVID-19 workplace safety recommendations for almost a year. The good news is that OSHA largely defers to the CDC when it comes to pandemic-related guidance, and we fully expect the agency to eventually adopt these recommendations as best practices. For now, businesses choosing to follow the new CDC guidelines should point to them if OSHA visits.
We will continue to monitor these developments and provide updates as appropriate. This information is not intend to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation. Please contact one of our attorneys at Schwartz Rollins, or our legal assistant, Vicki Perry at 404.844.4130.