The CDC has published new guidelines enabling workers employed in certain “Critical Infrastructure” jobs to return to work more quickly after they were exposed to people with known or suspected cases of COVID-19. Who’s covered and what are the key action items? Read on for our analysis.

The guidelines allow a faster return to work if the workers remain asymptomatic and take additional precautions to protect themselves and their communities. A printer-friendly version of the guidelines is available for posting at work locations.

Congress defined Critical Infrastructure in the 2001 Critical Infrastructure Protection Act to include “systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.” 42 U.S.C.  § 5195c(e).

The specific guidelines are discussed below.

Who is covered by the new guidelines? 

The CDC’s interim guidance pertains only to “Critical Infrastructure workers” and includes the following job positions:

  • Federal, state, & local law enforcement
  • 911 call center employees
  • Fusion Center employees**
  • Hazardous material responders from government and the private sector
  • Janitorial staff and other custodial staff
  • Workers – including contracted vendors – in food and agriculture, critical manufacturing, informational technology, transportation, energy and government facilities

** Fusion Centers are state-owned and operated facilities, which “serve as focal points in states and major urban areas for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information between State, Local, Tribal and Territorial, federal and private sector partners.” See Department of Homeland Security (DHS) definitions.

What additional precautions do these workers need to take if they return to work after exposure?

Critical Infrastructure workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 but are not presenting any symptoms should adhere to the following practices prior to and during their shifts:

  1. Pre-screen: Employers should measure the employees’ temperatures and assess their symptoms before allowing them to resume work.
    • Ideally, temperature checks should happen before the individual enters the facility.
    • Employers should coordinate with the facilities’ maintenance staff to increase ventilation in the work areas and reduce the time needed for air exchanges.
  2. Wear a mask: The employees should wear a face mask at all times while in the workplace for 14 days after last exposure.
    • Employers can issue facemasks or can approve employees’ supplied cloth face coverings in the event of shortages.
    • Employees and employers can prepare for this situation by testing how the use of face coverings can be adopted while ensuring the coverings do not interfere with employees’ work assignments.
    • Employees should not share headsets, telephones, radios or other objects that are used near the mouth or nose.
  3. Social distance: The employee should maintain 6 feet and practice social distancing as work duties permit in the workplace.
    • Employees should physically distance when they take breaks together.
    • The breaks should also be staggered when possible and employees should avoid congregating in the same room and should not share food or utensils.
  4. Disinfect and clean work spaces: Clean and disinfect all areas such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, shared electronic equipment routinely.
    • Employers should increase the frequency of cleaning commonly touched surfaces.
  5. Monitor regularly: As long as employees do not have elevated temperatures or other symptoms, they should self-monitor under supervision of the employer’s occupational health program.
    • If employees begin to feel sick during their shifts, they should sent home immediately.
      • Keep in mind, these situations are most likely going to be stressful for the affected employees and their co-workers. 
      • The affected employees should strive to avoid contact with other people on their way home.
      • Once affected employees are in a safe location, the employees and employers should compile the names of people they came in contact with during the two days before their symptoms appeared.
    • The surfaces in the sick employees’ work areas should be cleaned and disinfected.

When do these additional precautions need to be put in place?  

These precautions are required when employees in the job positions above have potentially been exposed to COVID-19, which the CDC defines as “a household contact or having close contact within 6 feet of an individual with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.” CDC considers the timeframe for contact to include “the period of time of 48 hours before the individual became symptomatic.”

Where are the 16 Critical Infrastructure sectors listed, and who decides what constitutes an “essential worker” in those sectors?

The 16 sectors were identified in 2013 as part of Presidential Policy Directive 21 (PPD-21). These sectors were selected because their assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual,  directly or indirectly enable Critical Infrastructure to function.  Additional information about the sectors and subsectors is available on the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency’s Critical Infrastructure website and through the URLs below.

Why has the CDC revised its self-isolation guidelines for particular job categories?

When CDC Director Robert Redfield announced the guidelines, he stated that “[o]ne of the most important things we can do is keep our critical workforce working” and that these guidelines would help to avoid a shortage in the critical infrastructure sectors. Arguably, the CDC Director’s response is a tacit acknowledgment of risk management and the fluid and evolving circumstances that exist across the country.