Are we done with isolating for COVID?
On Wednesday, Ontario announced it’s replacing its five-day isolation period for COVID-19 patients with new rules. Now, individuals with any respiratory illness are asked to stay home until their symptoms improve for 24 hours.
The news was quick to be criticized in the context of emergency room closures, schools reopening next week and colder weather on the horizon.
Here’s what you need to know:
What were the previous isolation rules?
Previously, fully vaccinated individuals had to isolate for five days after the onset of symptoms or a positive COVID test and until symptoms improved for at least 24 hours.
People 12 and up who were not fully vaccinated, immunocompromised patients and residents of highest-risk settings had to isolate for at least 10 days.
What are the new rules?
People with any respiratory illness are asked to stay home until they haven’t experienced fever for 24 hours and other symptoms have eased for the same period.
Even after finishing isolation, individuals should wear a mask for 10 full days from the start of their symptoms and avoid contact with high-risk people and places.
Does this mean I can go to school or work one day after testing positive?
No. Individuals must wait until they experience 24 hours of no fever and other symptoms improving.
Why these changes?
The rationale given by Ontario’s chief medical officer of health is that the approach is meant to respond to multiple respiratory viruses circulating this year alongside COVID.
“It’s absolutely … different than two years ago when we didn’t have vaccination,” Dr. Kieran Moore said in a news conference Wednesday. “We didn’t have such a high level of protection in our communities and hybrid immunity, both from vaccination and exposure to these viruses, and now that we have effective treatments like Paxlovid.”
What about high-risk settings?
Moore said there will be more specific advice for workplaces such as acute-care and long-term-care facilities, where they will keep the 10-day isolation period.
What are other places doing?
Other provinces have already taken on a similar approach. For example, New Brunswick in March dropped its isolation requirements for the general public. A five-day isolation period is still recommended in vulnerable sectors such as long-term care.
In July, isolation became “strongly recommended” but not mandatory for people who test positive for COVID in Nova Scotia. People are asked to stay home “if possible” when sick with cold or flu-like symptoms.
In England, isolation hasn’t been legally required since the end of February. Instead, National Health Service guidelines say people should “try to” stay home and avoid contact with others for five days, while at the same time noting that the virus can be transmitted for up to 10 days from the date of infection.
What about the strain on hospitals?
With emergency rooms and intensive-care units closing across Canada due to a lack of staff, some have raised questions about whether lifting isolation requirements is a good decision as the province braces for a rise in infections come fall.
“It’s very premature,” said Dr. Horacio Bach of the University of British Columbia, of the province’s decision. “I would say that it will be much wiser to wait until we go into the winter and see what is the situation.”
But one infectious diseases physician says the province is heading in the right direction.
“Sixteen months ago, we were seeing 40- and 50-year-olds dying on the ventilator from COVID,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti. “At one point around that time, we were using so much oxygen in the hospital that we were almost running out.
“And now, people that are coming in with COVID, the majority of them are over 85 years of age, multiple co-morbidities, and even they’re getting better.”
Since restrictions have been relatively loose since March, the physician at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga doesn’t think the change in the isolation requirements will make much of a difference on the ground.
“There’s lots of people that don’t even realize they have COVID,” he said.
Should we be ready to accept life with COVID now that symptoms don’t seem to be that severe for many?
For those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID, there are treatments available, some of which are underused, says Dr. Lynora Saxinger of the University of Alberta.
But while for many people a COVID infection is not severe, the long-term impacts of the virus are not yet fully known, says Dr. Lisa Barrett.
“We’re kind of a little bit early to be able to fully say that just because you don’t end up in hospital, in ICU and dead, that there is no impact,” said the infectious diseases researcher at Dalhousie University.
With files from The Canadian PressMaria Iqbal is a 905 Region-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Maria via email: email@example.com