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A person is taken into a hospital by a paramedic in Montreal, on Dec. 29.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

As Omicron-fuelled COVID-19 case counts continue to break provincial records across Canada, Quebec says it has no choice but to let some asymptomatic health care workers return to work seven days after testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

Despite opposition from unions representing these workers, officials said in a briefing Wednesday that in emergency situations, those with at least two doses of vaccine can return within this shorter timeframe, which was lowered from the previous 10-day limit during a week when 10,000 health care staff are expected to call in sick with the virus.

The new rules in Quebec mirror the changes made in B.C. this summer, which Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry attributed to data showing vaccinated people were less infectious for fewer days.

Now, B.C. and other provinces are considering lowering the isolation period for anyone with two doses of a vaccine who tests positive, to match new recommendations announced earlier this week in the United States. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its isolation recommendations for those with COVID-19 to five days from 10, as long as they are asymptomatic.

“People who are vaccinated are less likely to get infected, have milder illness and shed less virus for less period of time,” said Dr. Henry, who added her office will make a decision soon on whether to follow the new U.S. CDC guidelines. “It’s all about risk and mitigating the risk, because we know that some people will shed [the virus] for longer.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday that his government is also considering easing isolation rules for vaccinated people who test positive for the virus. Ontario is also studying whether to relax these isolation requirements.

Most provinces are still following the Public Health Agency of Canada’s current guidance that asymptomatic people should wait at least 10 days after testing positive before leaving their homes.

Experts fear that emergency workers across Canada – not just at hospitals, but also firefighters, police and paramedics – could see their ranks decimated by Omicron, especially if isolation periods remain as long as they are now.

Dr. Henry said more hospital staff in B.C. are beginning to call in sick with the more infectious Omicron variant of the virus, which she added binds more quickly to the inside of people’s noses and throats and can be spread by a person before they feel any symptoms. Still, she said, the United States has lower vaccination rates among hospital staff and other essential service agencies, so authorities are “having more and more challenges with people getting quite sick.”

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Emergency workers in other provinces also do not appear to be as affected – at least not yet. But Canada’s border agency said Wednesday it is temporarily closing two ports of entry in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island because of COVID-19 infections and close contacts among staff.

Quebec attempted to mitigate staffing shortages among first responders on Wednesday, with officials announcing an update to its isolation policy for essential workers outside of the health care sector, such as police officers, firefighters and snow-removal workers. These asymptomatic staff could now be called back in six days after testing positive for COVID if service disruptions are imminent.

Dr. Richard Massé, a strategic adviser for Quebec’s Health Department, told reporters Wednesday the government didn’t create a list of all essential workers, adding that it was up to employers to decide whether their employees were subject to the new guidance.

In Alberta, Red Deer‘s manager of emergency services, Ken McMullen, said shorter isolation periods would be welcome.

“We’re now in the 10-day period here in Alberta. The [U.S.] CDC, as of yesterday, is recommending five days. We will advocate for that,” he said.

Mr. McMullen, also a vice-president for the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, said only 11 of his service’s 268 employees are currently off because of COVID-19 concerns. But he worries that the continuing spread of Omicron could still cause a staffing crunch. “What we have seen is that most provinces do generally fall in line with what the CDC recommends,” Mr. McMullen said. “We think that five days are reasonable.”

Elsewhere, emergency responders are trying to find other ways of heading off potential problems. On Dec. 24, Toronto Police announced they will be reassigning officers in certain units to expanded 12-hour shifts in order to shore up staffing amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

On Wednesday, the City of Toronto announced that it will acquire more rapid antigen tests specifically for its police, fire and paramedic departments.

Frank Dwyer, a spokesperson for the Fire Department of the City of New York, said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail on Wednesday that 30 per cent of its emergency medical workers and 17 per cent of its firefighters are currently off sick.

In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has tapped the state’s volunteer militia as drivers to keep ambulances on the streets, the state’s National Guard said in an e-mailed statement.

Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious-disease specialist at the McGill University Health Centre, described Quebec’s decision to allow asymptomatic workers to return to work as a sign the province is in “desperation mode.”

However, he said all Canadian provinces will likely be facing similar choices in the coming days, as the number of sick people rises and the pool of workers available to treat them shrinks.

“There’s no reservoir of health care workers that we can sort of depend on to bail us out here,’’ he said in an interview. “We have to go back to our existing pool of workers, which necessarily means this type of mandate where they go back to work when they’re COVID-positive.’’

With a report from the Canadian Press

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