When should you tell someone you may have exposed them to COVID-19?
Questions like these are top of mind for many after this week’s news that President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump have tested positive for the coronavirus. They’re questions that maybe Trump and his team should have asked themselves after learning that top aide Hope Hicks had tested positive for the virus on Thursday morning.
Hicks had been displaying symptoms Wednesday night while on a campaign trip to Minnesota with the president. After learning that Hicks had tested positive on Thursday, Trump still attended a fundraiser at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, where he reportedly came into close contact with 30 to 50 donors.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters Friday that Hicks’ diagnosis became known just before the president left for Bedminster. Hours after the event, Trump confirmed on Twitter that he, too, had tested positive for the virus.
The news that the president may have exposed donors to the highly infectious virus hasn’t sat well with many ― including the donors themselves.
“The donors have been texting and calling. Freaking out,” an anonymous GOP source involved with Thursday night’s fundraiser told CNBC.
“Responsibility for notifying others of even a potential exposure starts long before a positive COVID test, even if the risk is low. It’s an example of just doing the right thing.”
– Nikole Benders-Hadi, medical director of behavioral health at Doctor On Demand
On Friday, just before 12 p.m. Eastern time, donors who attended the gathering were sent an email reminding them that no one was permitted within six feet of the president and advising them to reach out to their doctor if they started feeling coronavirus symptoms.
Experts say that Trump and those in his administration need to trace their contacts and start quarantining people who have been in close contact with them. (For instance, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany spoke to the press corp on Thursday ― though the Trump team claims that, at that point, she didn’t know about Hicks.)
Anyone who’s tested positive for COVID or thinks they may have exposed others to the virus needs to do the same thing, even if it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have. Below, experts share when and how to tell someone you may have exposed them to the coronavirus.
Who should you tell you have COVID-19 and when?
If you have the virus, you may be contagious 48 to 72 hours before starting to experience symptoms, according to Harvard Health. On average, it takes around five days for symptoms to appear after you’ve been infected. Many cases of COVID-19 are asymptomatic, but even if you don’t have any symptoms, you can still spread the illness to others.
If you find out you have COVID, don’t wait a minute to alert those you’ve been in close contact with during that time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a close contact is anyone an individual has been within 6 feet of for at least 15 minutes, starting “two days before illness onset” until the infected person went into quarantine.
Give your close contacts the same opportunity to go get tested and quarantine as soon as possible, said David Cennimo, an assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School who specializes in adult and pediatric infectious diseases.
Yes, public health authorities can and do undertake contact tracing, but to save time, it’s best to notify your contacts personally.
“I think you can call your contacts faster than the state health worker,” he said.
What should you do if you’re unsure if you have COVID but are close to someone who’s tested positive? (For example, your spouse, your child, or a co-worker you’ve been near.) Do you need to alert your contacts?
According to the CDC, contacts of contacts (those who have been around someone who is a close contact) do not need to quarantine but it’s still an act of good faith to alert them of what’s happening. There’s nothing wrong with using an abundance of caution here, Cennimo said.
“I still think you should notify them so that they can be more vigilant in monitoring for symptoms and wearing their masks,” he said.
As Nikole Benders-Hadi, the medical director of behavioral health at Doctor On Demand, put it, “Responsibility for notifying others of even a potential exposure starts long before a positive COVID test, even if the risk is low. It’s an example of just doing the right thing. ”
What do you say?
Breaking the news can be tricky, given the unfortunate stigma associated with COVID-19, said Shane G. Owens, a psychologist and the assistant director of campus mental health at Farmingdale State College SUNY.
“To kids, COVID-19 is the 2020 version of ‘cooties,’” he said. “Adults glare at or run away from anyone who sneezes or coughs. Given how many cases there are, it’s crucial for everyone to get past those judgments.”
Oftentimes, people don’t want to unnecessarily alarm others, so they avoid saying anything until they know their test results. That doesn’t do anyone any favors, though; if you suspect you have COVID, it’s vital to be direct, speedy, open and honest about what you know so far, Owens said.
Tell them what you know about your exposure and what you think it means for them. If this is a friend or family member, aim for empathy when broaching the topic.
“Make sure to say, ‘I’m letting you know because I care about you and your well-being,’” he said. “Anyone who truly cares about you, even if they are initially shocked, scared, or even angry, will ultimately understand and be grateful for your candor. As for everyone else, remind yourself that, no matter their response, you did the right thing and that you might have saved their lives.”
What if it’s a coworker or acquaintance you need to break the news to? Try to be as factual as possible and get the message across that you’re just trying to be responsible, said Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University.
“No need to be as emotional as you would with family and friends, just be factual,” he said. “Say, ‘Unfortunately, I have tested positive for COVID-19. I recommend all who came in contact with me recently to get tested and be vigilant about COVID symptoms. I am currently quarantined at home and not meeting anyone. I will keep everyone updated on my health status. Thank you for your understanding.’”
Be prepared for varied responses. Knowing you might have COVID is anxiety-inducing; it’s OK if that person feels angry or scared in response to the news, Benders-Hadi said.
“You should be open to giving as many details as you are aware of to help ease that person’s concerns and to do so freely from a place of compassion,” she said. “Leave the door open for additional questions that person may have even at a later date.”
Communicating all of this may be awkward and uncomfortable, but alerting the person is the right thing to do for you, them and your entire community.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.