Can You Be Around Someone with COVID-19 (or Exposed) and Not Get It?

The short answer from a family medicine physician
friends greeting during covid pandemic

Q: I was around someone at work who tested positive for the virus a few days after we spent time together. Am I going to get it now too?

A: Put simply, it depends. Your risk of becoming infected has a lot to do with the safety measures you were following when the two of you interacted.

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Did you:

  • Both wear a face mask during the interaction?
  • Keep at least six feet of space between each other?
  • Disinfect any shared space or objects?
  • Wash your hands afterwards?

The more you followed these guidelines, the less risk of exposure. And if you didn’t follow any of these guidelines (or only followed a few), your risk of becoming infected is higher.

But keep in mind, nothing is a guarantee. Many things affect whether or not a person exposed to COVID-19 will become sick or not, including safety measures, your immune system and where in the infection timeframe the person was. 

Time is also now used to weigh the risk level in a situation where you might have been exposed to COVID-19. The CDC defines close contact as being within six feet of someone for a total of 15 minutes or more. This means that interacting with someone for five minutes here and five minutes there can add up to a combined total of 15 minutes, which can raise your risk. It’s also not a hard and fast rule where if it was less than 15 minutes you’re immediately considered safe.

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In 1990, James Reason, PhD, introduced the “Swiss Cheese Model” that has been used to illustrate safety measures regarding infectious diseases. The safety measures are represented in his model as multiple layers of Swiss cheese. Even though these safety measures help protect you, every layer has “holes” that, under the right circumstances, can line up and lead to an infection.

swiss cheese model on infection process

Let’s say that during your interaction with your coworkers you both maintained physical space, disinfected the area and both washed your hands afterwards. Let’s also say that you were both wearing face masks when you began your conversation, but at some point, your coworker lowered his mask to drink his coffee. This is an example of the “holes” in the different layers of protection.

It’s also important to remember that any congregant setting is going to pose the highest risk, especially if people aren’t wearing face masks, aren’t maintaining physical distance and are gathered indoors. And since we know the virus mainly spreads through the air in respiratory droplets, lunch rooms or break rooms pose serious risk, especially if people are eating and talking.

The recommended precautions for exposure to COVID-19 is to:

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  • Quarantine for 14 days.
  • Self-monitor your symptoms.
  • Avoid contact with high-risk people.
  • Contact your doctor if symptoms develop.

If an infected person lives with you or you need to care for someone with COVID-19, follow guidelines to minimize further exposure.

– Family medicine specialist Neha Vyas, MD.

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