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What to do if you’re a close contact to someone with COVID-19

Rapid COVID-19 tests swabs are processed at Palos Verdes High School in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., on Aug. 24, 2021.Brittany Murray/Associated Press

Across New England, COVID-19 cases are surging, with hospitalizations creeping upward, too.

Public health experts have released guidance for those who test positive: Isolate. Keep distance. Wash your hands. Those rules apply to a growing swath of the population: Cases in Massachusetts have risen 172 percent over the past two weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It seems more likely than ever that someone you know has COVID-19.

But what should you do if you’ve been exposed to someone with the virus but have no positive test result to match (yet)?

Determine if you’re a close contact

The CDC defines “close contact” as someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more within a 24-hour period. The 15 minutes do not need to be continuous, just cumulative. Close contacts may be notified by either the infected person, a school, or by a health department. (Keep in mind: Massachusetts recently ended its contact tracing program.)

Close contacts to someone who tested positive are recommended to wear a well-fitting mask around others for 10 days after the exposure.


And given the soaring cases, it’s best practice for everyone to wear a mask, especially in indoor public spaces. Several public health experts also recommend upgrading your mask to a KN95 or N95.

Figure out whether you need to quarantine

Not everyone who is a close contact is required to quarantine, according to CDC guidance.

Adults who have completed the primary vaccine series (two shots of Pfizer or Moderna or one shot of Johnson & Johnson) and received a booster dose shot do not need to quarantine. Neither do children ages 5 through 17 with two vaccine doses or anyone with a confirmed case of the virus in the past 90 days. (Additional details about how to quarantine and isolate can be found here.)


If you live with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, here’s what to do.

Seek out a test

COVID-19 tests are in high demand, making them increasingly difficult to find across the Commonwealth.

Rapid testing drew attention late last year as a way to gather safely with friends and family and help minimize the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, the kits — like professionally administered PCR tests — have been in short supply for weeks. (A small study also suggests certain at-home tests may fail to detect some Omicron infections.)

If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a rapid test, here’s what you should know, according to an e-mail from Dr. Thomas Sequist, the chief medical officer at Mass General Brigham.

People who are asymptomatic and test negative for COVID-19 with an rapid antigen test do not need to quarantine if they are fully vaccinated and have a booster shot.

Those with symptoms who test negative with an antigen test should seek out a PCR test or test themselves again with an antigen test in a few days, Mass General Brigham says.

If an asymptomatic person tests negative with an antigen test and later develops symptoms, they should test again.

Massachusetts has hundreds of PCR testing locations, too. Here’s a list.

Remember, positive test results from at-home and PCR tests are an effective indication that someone has COVID-19. That means that people who see two pink stripes on an antigen sample do not need to get a PCR test for further confirmation, Sequist wrote in the e-mail.


Take precautions if you test positive

Individuals with COVID-19 should isolate immediately and inform close contacts of their positive test result.

People who are high-risk for severe COVID-19 are eligible for monoclonal antibody treatment if they have a positive antigen test result and are within 10 days of showing symptoms. They should call a primary care doctor to be referred to a designated infusion site. According to the CDC, high-risk conditions include cancer treatment, diabetes, obesity, age over 65 years, and more.

Those presenting moderate symptoms, like high fever, significant coughing, or shortness of breath, should contact a primary care provider.

People should contact an emergency department if they experience severe trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or dizziness, inability to wake or stay awake, or pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds.

Diti Kohli can be reached at her @ditikohli_.