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A worker picks up a COVID-19 self collection test kit which are given to arriving international passengers at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond on July 30, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The Vancouver Island Health Authority is advising its health care workers not to test themselves for COVID-19 unless they are at heightened risk for the illness, a decision that one scientist who has closely tracked the disease says defies common sense.

The health authority’s guidance was posted to its website on Feb. 1 and notes that provincial guidelines are still in effect. Those guidelines stipulate that anyone who tests positive can return to work five days after the onset of symptoms.

But the Island Health policy goes on to say some workers may be required to return to their jobs before the five days are up if their fever is over, if they are feeling well, and if their manager has determined they need to be at work.

“It is important to remember that the majority of health care workers with respiratory symptoms do NOT need to test for COVID-19, and can return to work when their fever is resolved and they feel well enough to work,” reads the memo.

The BC Centre for Disease Control has advised people with symptoms of COVID-19 to get tested if they are at risk of more severe disease, are hospitalized, or are pregnant. Anyone else doesn’t need to test, but should stay home until they are feeling better. The centre suggests, though, that they can pick up a rapid antigen test from their local pharmacy if they like.

But the Island Health guidance for health care workers is more declarative for those that aren’t in the three risk categories.

“COVID testing for HCW is not recommended,the health authority said, emphasizing the last three words by putting them in bold type.

The memo was issued by Reka Gustafson, the former deputy provincial health officer who joined Island Health last fall as its chief medical health officer, and Ben Williams, chief medical health executive for the authority. Questions about the policy were directed to the Ministry of Health, which did not immediately respond.

Sarah Otto, a theoretical biologist at the University of British Columbia who has been following the evolution of the coronavirus, said it “makes no sense” to elevate the COVID-19 risk for hospital patients who are already at their most vulnerable.

“Having medical staff test and be sure they are COVID-free when working is a bare minimum line of defence in keeping COVID out of the wards,” she said in an e-mail.

B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said the instructions to health care workers to avoid testing and to minimize taking time off runs counter to good public-health policy.

“It’s pretty surprising to me, given that there is a virus that is continuing to circulate around the world, is continuing to mutate, and is contributing to some really significant outcomes,” she said, pointing to both fatalities and long COVID.

“This feels to me like Island Health is not taking this virus seriously.”

She said with the health care system under pressure, its workers need to be supported and protected.

“The notion of telling health care workers go to work when you’re sick and don’t even try to determine what you’re sick with, this is the opposite of health care. It’s brain-breaking. How do we have a health care system that can deliver outcomes for people around well-being, if we’re not considering the well-being of the people in the health care system?”

Fraser Health Authority has advised its staff to follow the guidance of the BC Centre for Disease Control, which means they do not need a test if they have mild symptoms, are fully vaccinated, and are able to self-isolate. But staff or medical staff should not come to work and should test themselves using a rapid antigen test if they experience more severe symptoms.

With a report from Justine Hunter

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