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Quebec reduces COVID-19 isolation to 5 days, reserves PCR tests for those high risk

Click to play video: 'Government reduces COVID-19 isolation period to 5 days to offset labour shortage'
Government reduces COVID-19 isolation period to 5 days to offset labour shortage
WATCH: The Quebec government is shortening the isolation period to five days from 10 following a positive COVID-19 test. The narrowing of the isolation period comes as the health care system struggles with a labour shortage and hospital admissions for COVID-19 patients continues to surge. Olivia O'Malley reports. – Jan 4, 2022

Quebec is reducing the COVID-19 isolation period from 10 to five days for those who have two doses of the vaccine or who are under 12, and is reserving PCR testing for high risk individuals.

In a statement released Tuesday, the public health department said studies have shown that an infected person’s most contagious period is two days before the onset of symptoms and three days after symptoms first appear.

READ MORE: Omicron FAQ: Everything you need to know about the COVID-19 variant

Health officials say after five days of isolation, a person can leave their quarantine but must wear a mask and stay distant from others for another five days. If these measures can’t be met, then that person is asked to follow through with the previous 10 day isolation requirement.

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People who are not adequately vaccinated with two doses are asked to continue respecting the 10 day isolation guideline.

This comes as many other Canadian provinces and the U.S. moved to reduce their isolation guidelines to five days.

The Quebec government equally announced Tuesday that PCR tests in the province will now be reserved for high risk people only, because the province’s testing centres are overwhelmed and testing supply shortages are expected as the Omicron variant infections continue to surge.

The province says it has the capacity to administer 30,000 PCR tests per day, but the daily demand has reached double that, “and it’s unsustainable,” said Dr. Marie-France Raynault, a senior strategic medical adviser to Quebec public health.

READ MORE: More evidence Omicron variant causes milder symptoms, WHO says

The high risk population will include health-care workers who have contact with patients, Indigenous communities, people experiencing homelessness, and all residents, staff and caregivers who enter care homes, group homes, prisons, shelters and hospitals.

Even if these people are asymptomatic, the government says they will have access to priority PCR testing.

The rest of the general population is asked to use rapid antigen tests at home.

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Quebec said it expects to receive three million more rapid tests this week, and those tests will be delivered to pharmacies in the following days.

Quebec began distributing free rapid tests to the public through pharmacies on Dec. 20, but many ran out of tests shortly after opening.

The health department said that those who have COVID-19 symptoms, who are not eligible for a PCR and who don’t have access to a rapid test should consider themselves positive and quarantine.

People who isolate for five days must not have a fever for at least 24 hours, and their symptoms must be improving before they leave their isolation.

The five-day isolation period does not apply to health-care workers in direct contact with patients, who must isolate for seven days before returning to work.

Dr. Raynault said the move comes as thousands of people are being asked to isolate, which she said will “paralyze” Quebec society by creating a labour shortage.

“If we don’t have firefighters to put out fires, if we don’t have police officers to ensure security, if we don’t have delivery people so there’s food, if we don’t have bus drivers — these are all considerations that we take into account in public health.”

READ MORE: National civil liberties association condemns Quebec COVID-19 curfew, private gathering ban

She added that the province has not lost control of the situation, despite a high level of community transmission, because intensive care beds remain available.

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A lower percentage of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are in intensive care than during previous waves of the pandemic, said Raynault.

This comes as Quebec reported another rise in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday and 21 more deaths linked to the virus, as well as its booster shot eligibility expansion to the general adult population as of Jan. 4.

Quebec City’s main hospital network, the CHU de Québec-Université Laval, said it will need to postpone half of its surgeries and medical appointments starting Wednesday.

The Canadian Armed Forces announced Monday that they were deploying up to 200 personnel, mostly in Montreal and nearby regions, to help speed up the provincial booster vaccination drive.

Dr. Catherine Hankins, a professor of public and population health at McGill University, said the decision to limit access to PCR tests is a pragmatic one.

Hankins, who is also the co-chair of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, said in an interview that the health-care system should be focused on accelerating the vaccination campaign and preparing hospitals for more patients, rather than testing.

READ MORE: Omicron variant multiplies 70 times faster in airways than Delta, study suggests

The shorter isolation period, which is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), makes sense because 90 per cent of transmission happens within five days of the onset of symptoms, she said.

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“Yes, there’s a little bit of a risk, there’s a potential for transmission, but if you’re following all the precautions, the likelihood that you will transmit is very low,” she said.

While daily case counts regularly make headlines, she said “from a health-care system viewpoint, the most important metrics are hospitalizations, and then from there, how many of those people require oxygen, how many of them require ventilation, how many of them end up in the ICU and how many of them end up dying.”

–with files from the Canadian Press

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