Skip to main content

People wait in a lineup for a PCR test at a Vancouver Coastal Health COVID-19 drive-thru and walk-up testing site, in Vancouver, on Dec. 21, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

As an Omicron-variant-fuelled wave of COVID-19 rips through the country, all of Western Canada and New Brunswick have now joined Ontario and Saskatchewan in reducing the amount of time asymptomatic and twice-vaccinated people must isolate after they develop symptoms or test positive for the virus.

On Friday, Manitoba and Alberta announced their decisions to lower the isolation period to five days, from 10, as Ontario and Saskatchewan did earlier in the week. B.C announced it would lower the isolation period to five days from seven for vaccinated people. Unvaccinated people in B.C. who have COVID-19 must remain in isolation for the full 10 days.

New Brunswick’s Health Minister, Dorothy Shephard, confirmed her province is also instituting the five-day window. She made the announcement at a Friday news conference during which Premier Blaine Higgs announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 using a rapid test and was waiting for confirmation through a more accurate polymerase chain reaction (or PCR) test.

Experts had feared that emergency workers across Canada – not just medical workers, but also firefighters, police and paramedics – would see their ranks decimated by Omicron, especially if isolation periods remained at 10 days, which is the amount of time currently recommended by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Meanwhile, B.C. and Alberta are taking different approaches to allowing asymptomatic people to return to some essential public-service jobs in fewer than five days.

Alberta’s Health Minister, Jason Copping, said at a briefing Friday morning that some essential employers will soon be able to order twice-vaccinated workers back from isolation before five days have passed, if staffing shortages threaten to disrupt a vital service for more than a day.

“We are providing additional flexibility for certain employers who are providing essential services and they can’t replace an individual,” Mr. Copping said.

The Alberta government promised to release more details next week on which companies and agencies will be able to apply for this exemption. The workers will need to remain masked at all times while back on the job, Mr. Copping added.

At B.C.’s pandemic briefing, which started half an hour after Alberta’s event, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said she has asked staff to study this policy change, but that she is loath to follow Alberta’s lead unless absolutely necessary.

“If we get to the point that we have such a high number of health care workers off that we cannot safely provide care … those who have very mild symptoms or who are asymptomatic could work in some scenarios while they have the infection,” Dr. Henry said. “Having people going to work sick is not something that we ever want to do, particularly in health care.”

Supply crunch coming as demand for COVID-19 rapid testing soars

As Omicron surges, hospitals brace for an onslaught

Instead, B.C. is taking other steps, she added, such as shuffling health care workers from nursing and retirement homes to other areas of need. The province has also, once again, banned non-essential visitors from nursing and retirement facilities. Dr. Henry said the restriction on visits will be re-evaluated on Jan. 18, when other COVID-19 rules are set to expire, and that it will be in place for the shortest possible period of time.

Both Dr. Henry and Deena Hinshaw, her counterpart in Alberta, touted the ramp-ups of their provincial vaccine booster programs as important tools to fight the current wave of infections.

“While two doses of vaccine still provide good protection against the variant … a third dose provides much better protection against infection,” Dr. Hinshaw told reporters. “I urge everyone to get their booster as soon as possible with whatever vaccine is available to you.”

Only about 20 per cent of eligible adults in Alberta have had third doses, Dr. Hinshaw said, which is one percentage point lower than B.C.’s rate.

Ontario has given third doses to nearly 30 per cent of eligible adults, the provincial government said Friday.

Ontario and Alberta have opened up booster doses to all adults, while B.C. has been prioritizing elderly, vulnerable people as well as health care and other essential workers.

On Friday, Penny Ballem, a long-time civil servant who heads B.C.’s vaccination push, said the province will soon pivot to inviting a backlog of about 800,000 people under age 60 to receive their booster shots.

Officials said most people will be able to receive boosters one or two weeks after they receive their invitations. But some may need to wait up to five weeks.

Dr. Ballem also noted that 240,000 people who have received invites since October 27 still haven’t booked appointments.

Sally Otto, a University of British Columbia mathematical biologist who has done COVID-19 modelling, said B.C. appears to have been caught off guard by how easily Omicron spreads among those with second vaccine doses, even if vaccines still provide protection against severe symptoms.

“There was hope in B.C. that the dosage interval used here was going to provide long-lasting protection against even Omicron,” Dr. Otto said. “That was called into question by data from the United Kingdom that showed vaccine effectiveness dropped by three months, meaning most of British Columbia remains unprotected by their vaccines against infection.”

Earlier this week, Quebec’s Health Minister, Christian Dubé, told reporters his province may have no choice but to let COVID-19-positive health care workers and other first responders return to work while sick.

On Monday, the U.S. 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 and vaccinated.

With a report from The Canadian Press

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.