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I’ve been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, what do I need to do?

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The CDC currently defines a “close contact” as someone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 minutes cumulatively in a 24 hour period starting 2 days before the infected person’s symptoms developed (or 2 days before they were tested if asymptomatic) until the time the patient is isolated.  Importantly, this is IRRESPECTIVE of whether either person was wearing a mask or face covering during the exposure. (See our FAQ “What are the implications of the CDC’s new ‘close contact’ definition?for more information).

If you are exposed, you should stay at home until 14 days after your last exposure per current CDC guidance. During this time,  ideally you have your own bedroom and bathroom and can avoid common areas, but at least should maintain 6 feet of social distance from others at all times and avoid any contact with high risk individuals. While isolating, you should closely monitor for any symptoms (check your temperature twice a day, watch for cough, shortness of breath and other COVID-19 symptoms). 

If you happen to be a close contact with someone that was directly exposed before they were aware, the guidance is unfortunately not as specific. Based on the timing of your exposure and the degree to which you were exposed (using the definition of close contact,) you can determine how long you should limit your contact with others, certainly avoiding anyone that is at high risk. If you saw them shortly after they were exposed (within an hour to a day or so) and were generally careful, your risk is probably quite low. Your risk is higher if you were around them 2-3 or more days after they were exposed and you meet the definition of a close contact during that time frame. Of course the safest thing you can do is stay home until you know more details about their case. 

After an exposure, testing may or may not be helpful depending on the timing of the exposure. A negative test only means you were probably not infected yet at the time of the actual swab. If you opt to get tested after exposure, we would recommend isolating and waiting at least 6-8 days after your last possible exposure before getting tested and of course you should stay home before your test and at least until you get your results back. A negative test done too early does NOT guarantee you will not become ill or that you will not spread the virus. In other words, a negative test cannot tell you that you are “safe”- safety is based on your choices and behaviors, not testing. 

Jackie Phillips, MD, December 15, 2020