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Ontario weighs whether to follow U.S. in cutting COVID quarantine period


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Ontario weighs whether to follow U.S. in cutting COVID quarantine period

The province is evaluating whether it should shorten the isolation and quarantine period for COVID-positive people, following recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

But one Toronto doctor says the new guidelines are not “necessarily safe.”

On Tuesday, Ontario’s top doctor Kieran Moore postponed a scheduled news conference to consider the new U.S. guidelines, which came into effect south of the border on Monday.

“In light of the recently updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on shortening the recommended isolation and quarantine period, the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health and Public Health Ontario are evaluating this guidance against Ontario-specific evidence,” said Carly Luis, communications director for Health Minister Christine Elliott.

On Monday, U.S. health officials reduced isolation restrictions for Americans who catch COVID-19 from 10 to five days, and similarly shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said the guidance is in keeping with growing evidence that people with the coronavirus are most infectious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop.

The CDC’s updated guidance recommends people who test positive should isolate for five days and, if asymptomatic at that time, they may leave isolation if they can continue to mask for five days to minimize the risk of infecting others. The advice applies to both those who are unvaccinated and vaccinated.

“The Omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society,” said the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky. “CDC’s updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine balance what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses. These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives.”

However, Dr. Kashif Pirzada, an emergency room physician in Toronto, says the CDC move to shorten isolation periods is being done to keep critical infrastructure open and prevent a collapse of essential services but he doesn’t think it is “necessarily safe.”

He is concerned that people may overlook a key part of the CDC guidelines which requires people to use a well-fitting mask around other people for the five days after leaving isolation — the kind of mask that is not available to everyone.

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He said a better approach would involve the use of rapid tests that can detect when a person has a high viral load in the contagious window. An isolation period could then end after a person tests negative on a rapid test. He said, however, that that would mean making both rapid tests and high-quality masks freely and readily accessible.

“What the CDC is doing is incomplete without that,” he said.

Last week, the province announced that hospital workers who have been in close contact with someone who is COVID-positive don’t have to stay home and isolate, as long as they test negative daily for 10 days.

The U.K. also reduced its COVID-19 self-isolation period from 10 to seven days, for people who test negative through a rapid test two days in a row.

Meanwhile, Ontario Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips announced more restrictions for those visiting and living in long-term care facilities on Tuesday, including a pause on visits from anyone other than designated caregivers, as well as a pause on day absences for residents.

GTA cities are also taking their own precautions. Mississauga city officials said Tuesday they would cancel their outdoor New Year’s Eve events, including fireworks, amid spiking COVID-19 numbers. In Vaughan, officials said they were cancelling programs at community centres due to staffing shortages, and also shutting down fitness centres, pools, and many local libraries.

Ontario has been seeing record daily numbers of COVID-19 cases in recent days due to the highly contagious Omicron variant. On Tuesday, Ontario reported 8,825 new cases.

On Twitter, Elliott said 187 people were now in intensive care in Ontario hospitals due to COVID-19, among a total of 491 hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Health experts warn the COVID numbers are likely much higher than the official case counts, as testing centres are swamped and PCR testing not available at most GTA-area hospitals until well into the new year.

With files from Canadian Press

Noor Javed is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering city news with interest in 905 municipal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved

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