Move to drop mandatory self-isolation for COVID-positive people is concerning, says health policy expert

A 'self-isolating' sign is posted on a residential door. A health policy expert is condemning a move by B.C. public health officials to drop mandatory self-isolation rules for those who test positive for COVID-19. (Shane Ross/CBC - image credit)
A 'self-isolating' sign is posted on a residential door. A health policy expert is condemning a move by B.C. public health officials to drop mandatory self-isolation rules for those who test positive for COVID-19. (Shane Ross/CBC - image credit)

An expert is condemning a move by B.C. public health officials to drop mandatory self-isolation rules for those who test positive for COVID-19.

The rule change was not announced in a public statement or prominently highlighted during a Wednesday news conference by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix.

Instead, guidelines were changed on the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) website, on the page, Self-Isolation and Self-Monitoring on Thursday.

"Starting Nov. 17, 2022, people who have COVID-19  are no longer required to self-isolate," the page reads. "However, it is still important for people with symptoms to stay home as much as possible to reduce any potential spread of illness until your symptoms have improved."

Andrew Longhurst, a health policy researcher at Simon Fraser University, said it was concerning that the impactful rule change wasn't communicated more broadly.

"I think what it suggests is … they were hoping to avoid any public discussion and debate about what this means," he told CBC News in an interview.

"Especially at a time when pediatric care in the province is collapsing like it is in other provinces."

Michel Aspirot/CBC/Radio-Canada
Michel Aspirot/CBC/Radio-Canada

Until Thursday, people who were fully vaccinated and tested positive for COVID-19 were required to self-isolate for five days, while unvaccinated adults were expected to quarantine for 10 days.

Those guidelines initially prescribed a 10-day isolation period for all who tested positive, even without symptoms, until changes were made for fully vaccinated people at the start of 2022.

Longhurst said without mandatory isolation rules, there would be more COVID-19 spread in the province — especially as research has shown people are infectious even six days after first testing positive.

Incidental mention of rule change at news conference

Beyond the BCCDC website update on Thursday, the only mention of the rule change was incidental.

During the Wednesday news conference, Henry brought up the rule in passing while discussing how actions to prevent RSV, influenza and COVID-19 — the three viruses currently affecting children across B.C. — remained the same.

"One of the things that we've had in place for a long time is saying if you have COVID, you need to stay home for five days," she said. "That's no longer relevant in the setting that we are in now.

"If you have symptoms of any respiratory illness … the guidance is to stay home and to limit close contact with others."

WATCH | Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks to why she isn't yet ready to impose a mask mandate: 

A statement from the province after the news conference repeats Henry's advice, but does not mention the dropping of mandatory quarantine rules.

"Public Health's basic guidance has not changed. If you have symptoms or have a positive test, you should isolate as much as is possible until the symptoms are gone," a spokesperson for the Health Ministry said in a statement on Saturday.

When further asked for clarification around why the rule change went through, a ministry spokesperson said, "the guideline of five days is not there anymore but the advice is the same — stay home when you're sick.

"We now have more protection against severe illness from COVID-19 because of vaccination, infection-induced immunity and treatments."

Impact on precarious employees

The new rules would give employers the legal backing to ask sick employees to come in to work even if they tested positive for COVID-19, says Longhurst.

"The more precarious you are as a worker in this province, the more likely you are now to face an employer who will say, 'I need you in the workplace, I don't care if you have COVID,'" he said.

Longhurst says he is not only concerned about the acute effect of more infectious people out and about, but also for workers trying to work through COVID-19 — something he says increases the risk of long COVID, according to research, adding that those who work in health care or education would be most impacted.

"We're now into November. I think very few workers, probably, have any employer-paid sick leave left at this time," he said. "We're going into the holidays. It's intended to be a very busy retail season, shopping season.

"I think [dropping isolation rules] is … serving those economic interests rather than the public health."