Understanding Close Contact
This page was updated on December 18 to reflect new quarantine guidelines.
When we talk about who needs to quarantine and who needs to get tested, we talk about close contact—people who were close enough to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 for long enough that we think they could get sick.When folks ask us for advice if they should get tested, we often ask them if they have had close contact. If they say yes, we say, “Can you tell me more about that?” And what they often share is not what we consider close contact. Which is understandable—close contact is a complicated topic and this is a scary virus! Let’s take a look at how we define close contact and some common examples.
Defining Close Contact
Just because you were near someone who later tested positive for COVID-19 doesn’t mean you were necessarily a close contact. When we say close contact, we mean one of these things happened:
- You were within 6 feet of a person who tested positive for more than 15 minutes total in a day (this time does not need to be consecutive. Three, 5-minute periods over the course of a day is still close contact).
- You had any physical contact with a person who has tested positive.
- You had direct contact with the respiratory secretions of a person who has tested positive (i.e., from coughing, sneezing, contact with a dirty tissue, shared drinking glass, food, or other personal items).
- You live with or stayed overnight for at least one night in a household with the person who tested positive.
Keep in mind the definition for close contact could change at any time. With this novel virus there is new and emerging research every day that gives us more insights into how it’s spread.
Was That Close Contact?
Let’s look at a few examples to see what is and isn’t close contact:
Scenario 1: The masked barbecue
- You and your neighbor grill together in your backyard. You’re within six feet but are both wearing a mask. The next day he calls and tells you he tested positive for COVID-19.
- Was this close contact: Yes. Even if you’re wearing a mask or outside, if you’re within six feet for 15 or more minutes, you are considered a close contact. You should quarantine and get tested. See our “What to do if you were sick or possibly exposed” webpage for more information.
Scenario 2: The friend of a friend
- Your teenager went over to a friend’s house for dinner. Earlier that morning, the friend had volleyball practice. Later in the week, the friend finds out that someone on the team tested positive and texts your teenager the news.
- Was this close contact: No. Your teenager did not have close contact with someone who tested positive.
Scenario 3: The rule followers
- You work at a construction site. Everyone always wears a mask and stays at least six feet from each other. One of your co-workers tested positive, but you’ve never been within six feet of her.
- Was this close contact? No. And great job taking precautions to keep everyone safe!
Scenario 4: The unknown schoolmate
- You get a note from your child’s school that someone in their building tested positive. The child who tested positive is not in your child’s classroom.
- Was this close contact: No.
Scenario 5: The repeat chit chatter
- You have a co-worker who pops into your cubicle a few times a day to chit chat. On Monday, you have a few conversations, none longer than a few minutes. Later that week, he gets a positive COVID test result.
- Was this close contact: Maybe. It depends how long you were together. The 15-minute limit is cumulative but does not have to be consecutive. This means if you have 3, 5-minute conversations within a day, within six feet of each other, you had 15 minutes of close contact. See our “What to do if you were sick or possibly exposed” webpage for more information.
Scenario 6: The outsiders
- You and your pals meet for an outside happy hour. Everyone is maskless but are about eight feet apart for a couple hours. A few days later, a friend who attended tells the group they tested positive.
- Was this close contact: No. You must be within six feet of someone for at least 15 minutes for this to be considered close contact.
Scenario 7: The hugger
- A friend stops by for a quick chat. You both are outside, wearing masks, and about ten feet apart. Before she leaves, she gives you a quick hug. A few days later, she texts you that she tested positive.
- Was this close contact: Yes. While you didn’t come within six feet for 15 minutes, you did have physical contact. Physical contact of any kind means you’re a close contact. You should quarantine and get tested. See our “What to do if you were sick or possibly exposed” webpage for more information.
Scenario 8: The parent/child conundrum
- Your toddler attends daycare. One of the parents of a child in his class tests positive. The parent never had contact with your child, but their child did.
- Was this close contact? No. You child was not within six feet of someone with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes.
Scenario 9: The kitchen co-workers
- Your partner works in a hospital cafeteria. She wears a mask but is within six feet of others nearly the entire day. One of her co-workers—whom she has been within six feet of for at least 15 minutes—tests positive.
- Was this close contact: Yes, for your partner. Your partner should quarantine and get tested. She should be in a room in your home away from all people and pets. She must continue to quarantine, even if she has a negative result. You and everyone who lives with you should monitor themselves for symptoms. See our “What to do if you were sick or possibly exposed” webpage for more information.
Scenario 10: The super spreader
- You attend an indoor wedding with 75 guests. You wear a mask for some of the time, but not the whole time. You try to stay six feet from others, but you definitely got within six feet of some people for 15 or more minutes. A couple days after the wedding, you hear that someone at the wedding tested positive but you don’t know who.
- Was this close contact: Maybe. Since you don’t know who it is—and in a gathering of that size, it’s very likely more than one person had COVID-19—we can’t be certain you had close contact. In this situation, you should err on the side of caution. Get tested and quarantine. See our “What to do if you were sick or possibly exposed” webpage for more information.
Scenario 11: The holiday
- Your mother in law decides to host Thanksgiving this year. You’re wary about going but agree to attend as long as there are some precautions: you insist on being a few feet apart, cracking open a few windows to increase ventilation, and keeping the gathering to just the 10 people in your family. Everyone passes food around the table and fills their plates. On Saturday your father in law develops a cough and gets tested. On Monday, you hear he has tested positive.
- Was this close contact: Yes. Reducing risk by increasing ventilation and keeping groups small is important, but it isn’t a foolproof way to avoid getting sick. While not everyone at the table might have been within six feet of your father in law, everyone at the dinner table should get tested and quarantine because they all handled food items that he also touched. See our “What to do if you were sick or possibly exposed” webpage for more information.
Scenario 12: The ladies who lunch
- You and a co-worker grab a bite at a nearby café. You sit inside and wear your masks, except when you’re eating. She feels a little off that afternoon and gets tested the next morning. A few days later she tells you she’s tested positive.
- Was this close contact: Yes. You were within six feet for 15 or more minutes. Get tested and quarantine. See our “What to do if you were sick or possibly exposed” webpage for more information.
Scenario 13: The close crop
- You were a close contact to a co-worker and your supervisor has instructed you to quarantine. On day three you get tested. On day five, you hear back that your test was negative. You had an appointment to get a haircut on your calendar for weeks and decide not to skip it. On day seven, you go to get your hair cut. You and your stylist wear a mask. On day eight, you’re feeling a little under the weather and go get another test. On day 10 you learn it was positive.
- Was this close contact: Yes. Your stylist is now a close contact to you because you were within six feet for more than 15 minutes. This is an important reminder that you must quarantine, beginning after your last contact with your co-worker. Even if you initially test negative right after exposure, even if you have no symptoms, you can still be spreading the virus. See our “What to do if you were sick or possibly exposed” webpage for more information.
Don’t Be a Close Contact…Take Precautions!
To avoid becoming a close contact, do not gather, wear a mask, and stay at least six feet from people you don’t live with at all times. Find more recommendations for reducing your risk on our website.