The CDC Just Changed This One Major Coronavirus Guideline

If you've been abiding by the CDC's "more than 6 feet for under 15 minutes" rule, you should reconsider.

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With coronavirus still spreading at alarming rates across the United States, reducing contact with potentially infected individuals is a top priority for Americans everywhere. But what you may have been considering a safe encounter could actually be putting you at risk. As scientists and medical experts have learned more about the virus, what constitutes as potential exposure has also evolved. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that the initially established guidelines for what constitutes a "close contact" may no longer be enough to protect you against COVID-19.

The CDC's early definition of a close contact—initially defined as being closer than 6 feet to a person with COVID for 15 minutes or more—is simply not a stringent enough guideline. In a call with members of the media on July 27, John Brooks, MD, Chief Medical Officer of the CDC's COVID-19 response, announced that those metrics for the distance and duration of an interaction should be viewed as merely "a rule of thumb."

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Brooks noted that, based on experts' most recent understanding of how the virus is spread, shorter interactions could pose just as much risk as lengthier ones. Brooks said that, if, for instance, someone sneezes in close proximity to you during a brief interaction, "That may last only a few seconds, but that's a high-risk circumstance." And in that case, six feet of distance may not be enough either. According to a paper published in Physics of Fluids on June 30, droplets from sneezes or coughs can transfer to objects and individuals 13 feet away, even without the benefit of wind.

"Context really matters here," Brooks elaborated. "It might be short, but if your voice was raised, say to speak over loud machinery, or if someone was coughing or sneezing, you might want to err on the side of caution."

woman wearing mask coughing into hand
Shutterstock/Konstantin Zibert

So, what should you do if you think you may have been exposed to the virus, even if your interaction with an infected person was short and socially distanced? "Quarantine for 14 days," said Brooks.

Individuals who've had contact with someone with COVID-19 (whether confirmed or probable) should stay at home for 14 days, monitor for symptoms, and avoid anyone who's considered high risk, the CDC advises. And for more tips from the CDC, check out 50 Essential COVID Safety Tips the CDC Wants You to Know.

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