As the numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and related hospital admissions continue to rise, so, too, does the risk of potential exposure.
But what actually constitutes exposure to the novel coronavirus? How does contact tracing help identify who has been exposed to COVID-19? And, what should you do if you learn you’ve been exposed to COVID-19?
We spoke with our infectious diseases and infection control specialist Roy Chemaly, M.D., for details.
What constitutes close contact and what constitutes exposure to the coronavirus?
Close contact to COVID-19 occurs when you are within six feet of someone who is showing symptoms of COVID-19, for at least 15 minutes, or an infected person who shows no symptoms but later tests positive for the coronavirus. This is considered exposure regardless of whether one or both parties were wearing a mask.
Are the risks of COVID-19 exposure different between indoor and outdoor settings?
Yes, but only by degree. Outdoors, your risk is a bit less, because you’re not in a confined area with poor air circulation.
But regardless of whether you’re at inside or outside events, you should still be wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. And you should wear a mask anywhere you can’t guarantee you’ll be able to stay six feet away from other people. Don't forget to frequently wash your hands!
What should I do if I discover I’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19?
Quarantine yourself for two weeks. That means staying at home and away from other people for 14 days after the date of the exposure, while you monitor yourself for fever and other signs of infection.
If you live with other people, sleep in a separate room, if possible, avoid sharing food, frequently disinfect surfaces and try to avoid the rest of your household as much as possible. You should wear a mask in your home when you’re not able to properly keep your distance from other household members.
If you don’t show any symptoms after two weeks, you can venture back out again if necessary, but be sure to wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash your hands frequently.
At what point do I need to get tested for COVID-19 if I’ve been exposed?
You can be tested for COVID-19 at any time, but keep in mind that the tests are more reliable when people are actually showing symptoms of infection. So, if you’ve been exposed and are showing COVID-19 symptoms, that would be the ideal time to get tested.
We recommend the COVID-19 nasal swab test, which is the most reliable test at this time.
What coronavirus symptoms should I watch for?
The list of COVID-19 symptoms continues to evolve as we learn more about this coronavirus, and symptoms can vary widely from person to person. At this time, these are the COVID-19 symptoms you should watch for:
any new shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
shaking with chills
muscle pain or body aches
new loss of taste or smell
nausea or vomiting
congestion or runny nose
What is a COVID cluster?
This is defined as two or more people who shared the same space at the same time when they developed symptoms and who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.
What does “the same space” mean? Could that be my home?
It could be a residence, but it could also be any other type of gathering, whether it’s strangers at a bar or friends and family at a pool or birthday party. Even people sitting around a break room at their office could be a cluster, if two or more of them started showing symptoms and later tested positive for COVID-19.
What is contact tracing, and how does it work?
Contact tracing is an attempt by public health officials to identify situations in which an infected person is transmitting the coronavirus, and then warn others who may have been exposed through that person. This way, those who’ve potentially been exposed to COVID-19 can quarantine themselves in the hopes of reducing the spread of this coronavirus.
Here’s how contract tracing works: First, officials contact the infected person to get details of where and how they might have caught the virus. Then, they try to determine who that person might have exposed through close contact, based on the definition above. From there, they contact the people who were exposed and ask them to quarantine themselves until the danger has passed.
How far back in time does contact tracing go?
There’s been no clear guidance on that yet, but generally speaking, contact tracing goes back about 2-3 days before infected people started showing symptoms.
What’s the most important thing for people to know about COVID-19 exposure and contact tracing right now?
Contact tracing is very complicated, even when you have adequate resources. So, the best thing you can do to protect yourself and others is continue to wear a mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing, and stay at home whenever possible. And if you have COVID-19 symptoms, go home, quarantine yourself and get tested.