April 16, 2020

CDC Permits “Critical” Workers to Continue Working After Exposure to COVID-19

Interim guidance issued by CDC on April 9 allows “critical infrastructure workers” to continue to work following potential exposure to COVID-19 as long as they do not exhibit symptoms of the disease and additional precautions are taken to protect them and the community. Workers considered essential according to the guidance include federal, state, and local law enforcement; 911 call center employees; employees of Department of Homeland Security Fusion Centers; hazardous material responders from government and the private sector; janitorial staff and other custodial staff; and workers, including contracted vendors, in food and agriculture, critical manufacturing, informational technology, transportation, energy, and government facilities.

Critical infrastructure workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic must wear a mask in the workplace at all times for 14 days following exposure, according to CDC’s guidance. They must also, to the extent possible, maintain a distance of six feet from others as well as clean and disinfect all areas such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, and shared electronic equipment. In addition, employers should take the workers’ temperature and assess their symptoms before their shift begins.

Labor groups condemned the guidance, stating that it ignores evidence of asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 and puts workers’ lives at risk.

“With the number of COVID-19 cases continuing to rise across the country, this guidance threatens to undo any gains made by states working desperately to prevent deadly exposures and save lives,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, in a press release. “This unsound guidance sends the message to our critical frontline workers that their government and employers view them as expendable.”

A statement from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka criticized CDC’s “dangerous” guidelines that “tell employers to keep potentially infected workers at work, which does not protect essential workers on the front lines and ignores firmly established science that there is significant transmission from asymptomatic and presymptomatic individuals.”

Recent publications in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report suggest that asymptomatic transmission is a significant factor in the spread of COVID-19. Nearly half of the infected residents at a Seattle nursing home and infected passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship were asymptomatic when tested for the disease.