By: Adam Young, Matthew A. Sloan, and Ilana R. Morady

Seyfarth Synopsis: The CDC’s shorter isolation and quarantine requirements will allow employers to get many COVID-19 positive employees and exposed, unvaccinated employees back to work 5 days sooner.   

On December 28, 2021, the CDC shortened the recommended isolation period for all persons with COVID-19.  Under the revised guidance, individuals only need to isolate for 5 days instead of 10 days following the onset of symptoms or a positive test if asymptomatic or symptoms are resolving after those initial 5 days.  The CDC also recommends that individuals continue to wear a face mask around others for at least 5 days following this initial 5-day isolation period.  These recommendations previously only applied to essential workers.

The CDC also updated its quarantine recommendations for those exposed to COVID-19. Previously, the CDC advised that individuals who were fully vaccinated did not need to quarantine after contact with someone who had COVID-19, unless experiencing symptoms.  Now, for individuals who are unvaccinated or are more than six months out from their second mRNA dose (or more than 2 months after the J&J vaccine) but not yet boosted, the CDC recommends quarantining, if feasible, for 5 days followed by strict mask use for an additional 5 days.  If a 5-day quarantine is infeasible, the CDC explains it is “imperative” that the exposed individual wear a well-fitting mask at all times when around others for 10 days after exposure. Testing on day 5 is recommended.

Individuals who have received their booster shot, or are less than 6 months out from their primary Pfizer or Moderna vaccine (or less than 2 months out from the J&J vaccine) however, do not need to quarantine following an exposure, but should wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure, and get tested on day 5 if possible.

These changes come during a particularly fraught stage of the pandemic, with the Omicron variant spreading, significant numbers of Americans testing positive, a growing risk of labor shortages, renewed disruption to the economy, and widespread exhaustion from further disruption to daily life.  As CDC Director Rochelle Walensky reassured when the updated guidance was announced: “These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives.”

For employers in most jurisdictions, the updated guidance likely means that policies requiring employees to isolate/quarantine for 10 or more days can be revised to align with the CDC’s updated recommendations.  Revising these policies will allow many employers to get employees back to work sooner. However employers should confirm that the relevant state and local authorities have adopted CDC’s recommendations. The CDC admonishes that its recommendations  do not supersede state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations.

Given the transmissibility of the Omicron variant, employers should remain vigilant in keeping these and other employees at least six feet apart, particularly in break rooms and other areas where employees may be required to remove their mask temporarily (to eat or drink, for example).

Employers could also update their policies if they previously did not require fully vaccinated employees to quarantine following exposure to COVID-19.  Employers must also comply with stricter state and local rules.  Before making any changes, employers should check to ensure that there are no state or local rules requiring different isolation periods and masking protocols, although we anticipate that several of these jurisdictions will begin to align with the updated guidance.

For more information on these changes and all things COVID-19, please contact the authors or your Seyfarth attorney.