That’s A Wrap! CDC Reduces Recommended COVID-19 Isolation Period

On March 1, 2024, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it is updating its COVID-19 guidance and is no longer recommending that individuals who test positive for COVID-19 isolate for five days.  The agency is recommending a new, “unified approach” to respiratory viruses, including not only COVID-19 but also flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). 

Under the new guidance, individuals should monitor themselves for various respiratory virus symptoms, including fever, chills, fatigue, cough, runny nose and headache.  Those who develop such symptoms are recommended to “stay home and away from others,” but also advised that they can return to normal activities “when, for at least 24 hours,” their symptoms are improving and they have not had a fever without the use of fever-reducing medication.  The CDC’s recommendations are now independent of whether an individual actually has tested positive for COVID-19 or any other respiratory virus, and do not include any minimum isolation period.

What does this mean for employers?

More than four years since the start of the pandemic, the CDC has removed the public health recommendation that those testing positive for COVID-19 isolate for a specified period of time.  With COVID-19 now endemic in the United States, however, employers will continue to confront COVID-19 cases and related issues.  Here are our “final five” recommendations:

1.  Review Time Off Requirements – COVID-19 continues to be highly contagious and to pose potentially serious risks to older and medically vulnerable individuals.  Employees who are actively symptomatic with a respiratory virus should be encouraged not to come to work, both for their own health and to avoid spreading the virus to co-workers.  Active COVID-19 will generally qualify for paid sick time, not only in New York, which has maintained special COVID-19 sick leave since March 2020, but in all state and local jurisdictions with general paid sick time requirements.  Employees may also be eligible for paid family leave or kin care leave to tend to ill family members, and serious cases of COVID-19 may qualify an employee for unpaid leave under FMLA or analogous state provisions. 

2.  Prepare for Accommodations – COVID-19 continues to reshape the post-pandemic workplace.  Employers can expect that COVID-19-related accommodation requests will continue, especially during peak COVID-19 and flu periods.  This includes employees seeking remote and hybrid work on the grounds that they are at higher individual risk of COVID-19 complications and/or that they provide care to medically vulnerable individuals.  This may also include employees seeking longer-term workplace modifications on the basis of long COVID.  Employers should be prepared to address these requests under the ADA and analogous state laws, and also to consider how flexible work fits into their overall employee relations strategy.

3.  Review Industry and State Requirements – Although the pandemic has receded as a national issue, employers should monitor state requirements.  States like California still have requirements for a COVID-19 Prevention Program, and employers must still comply with these requirements until those regulations sunset.  Employers in certain sectors, including healthcare, education, and congregate settings, may be subject to special workplace safety and health requirements relating to the management of communicable diseases, including respiratory viruses.  Future COVID-19 guidance is likely to be more narrowly tailored to specific occupational considerations, and employers should look for industry requirements and recommendations.

4.  Recommend COVID-19, Flu and RSV Vaccination and Boosters – The CDC emphasizes vaccination as the “core strategy” for reducing the risk of severe illness from respiratory viruses, including long COVID, and has issued detailed recommendations for COVID-19 boosters.  Employers that have historically provided onsite flu shot clinics should consider whether to make updated COVID-19 boosters available to employees as well.

5.  Reflect, and Expect the Unexpected – The past four years have driven home the importance of including workplace safety and public health in business continuity planning, alongside IT, financial and environmental considerations.  Many employers have adopted more flexible ways of working, including enhanced technological supports and improved accommodations processes.  Countless employees have displayed astonishing resilience throughout this period, particularly on the frontline.  Whether or not we encounter another challenge comparable to this, we are hopeful that the lessons learned will resonate in workplaces for years to come.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.