Omicron COVID-19: Ontario limits eligibility for PCR tests, shortens isolation period and delays return to school to Jan. 5

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TORONTO, ON- DECEMBER 20 - Rapid Antigen Tests as we test the two children in my family after they each had COVID cases in their classes at school in Toronto. December 20, 2021. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images) (Steve Russell via Getty Images)

After the Ontario government reported more than 13,000 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, with the Omicron variant spreading, the province announced changes to its testing and isolation rules, in addition to delaying the return to school for students and teachers by two days.

Limiting eligibility for a PCR COVID-19 test

Effective Dec. 31, publicly funded PCR testing will only be available to symptomatic individuals who are at the highest risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 (including to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis before treatment), healthcare workers and residents in high-risk settings, including hospitals, long-term care homes and retirement homes.

Additionally, anyone in the province who gets a positive result from a rapid antigen test will no longer be "required or encouraged" to get a PCR test to confirm that result.

"This, we recognize, reflects some significant changes from our previous COVID testing strategy, which meant that anyone with symptoms could receive a PCR test," Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said at a press conference on Thursday. "But the Omicron variant is rapidly spreading and we must preserve these resources for those who need them the most."

Ontario's chief medical officer of health stressed that rapid tests should only be used if an individual has developed symptoms.

"I wouldn't use them to go socialize or visit someone elderly or frail, or immunocompromised," Dr. Moore said.

When asked about the limited data Ontario will have on positive COVID-19 cases moving forward, due to these changes, Dr. Moore stressed that the provincial government is "very much aware that we have widespread community activity." He added that about 40 per cent of daily tested samples are positive, with over 90 per cent identified as the Omicron variant.

"Hence, additional knowledge through that surveillance is not necessary as we can anticipate for the next six to eight weeks that we'll have widespread community activity of the Omicron variant across Ontario," Dr. Moore said.

Sign for a COVID-19 isolation centre seen during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Markham, Ontario, Canada on April 14, 2021.  (Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Sign for a COVID-19 isolation centre seen during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Markham, Ontario, Canada on April 14, 2021. (Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Vaccinated COVID-19 cases only need to isolate for 5 days

New rules for isolation state that individuals who are fully vaccinated (two doses of vaccine) and children under the age of 12 will only be required to isolate for five days after the onset of symptoms. Household contacts must isolate for the same period of time.

In order to complete isolation, symptoms must have improved for at least 24 hours, and public health measures like masking and physical distancing must be followed.

Any non-household contacts should self-monitor for symptoms for 10 days.

Unvaccinated individuals in Ontario, anyone who is partially vaccinated or immunocompromised, must isolate for 10 days.

"We know most spread, or over 40 per cent of spread, is actually the two days before you develop symptomatic, so we lost that opportunity to protect, but most Ontarians are wearing their masks publicly, they may not wear it in their social side, and that’s why it’s spreading so quickly," Dr. Moore said.

He added that wearing a mask in public, with at least three layers of filtration, will prevent the source of additional infection after the five-day isolation of a COVID-19 case.

It is recommended that Ontarians who work or live in high-risk healthcare settings return after 10 days from their last exposure, their date of diagnosis or the onset of symptoms.

The provincial government guidance also states that "to ensure sufficient staffing levels," workers in healthcare settings can return to work after isolating for seven days, with a negative PCR or rapid antigen test result.

Infectious disease and other health experts in Ontario quickly took to social media to respond to the changes in the isolation rules in the province.

Ontario students, teacher to return to school on Jan. 5

On Thursday, the Ontario government announced that schools in the province will reopen on Jan. 5, 2022, after the winter break. This delay from the Jan. 3 return to school date is being done to "provide schools additional time to prepare for the public health measures."

A teacher blows bubbles to welcome students at a school in Mississauga, the Greater Toronto Area, Ontario, Canada, on Sept. 9, 2021. Schools in Toronto, Peel, York and Durham started their school years on Thursday, offering a mix of in-person classes and online learning for students. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty Images)
A teacher blows bubbles to welcome students at a school in Mississauga, the Greater Toronto Area, Ontario, Canada, on Sept. 9, 2021. Schools in Toronto, Peel, York and Durham started their school years on Thursday, offering a mix of in-person classes and online learning for students. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty Images)

New public health measures being implemented in Ontario schools include:

  • Asking students, parents and staff for rigorous screening and monitoring of symptoms

  • Providing non-fit-tested N95 masks for staff in schools and licensed child care settings as an optional alternative to medical/surgical masks

  • Providing additional supply of three-ply cloth masks and free for students and children in January

  • Deploying an additional 3,000 standalone HEPA filter units to school boards

  • Continuing PCR testing eligibility for symptomatic elementary and secondary students, education staff and participating private and First Nation operated schools

  • Temporarily permitting only low-contact indoor sports and safe extra-curricular activities

  • Projected hiring of over 2,000 staff for second semester

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 28: Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors goes to the basket against Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the first half of their basketball game at the Scotiabank Arena on December 28, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 28: Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors goes to the basket against Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the first half of their basketball game at the Scotiabank Arena on December 28, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

Lower capacity limits in large indoor settings

Beginning Dec. 31, spectator/guest capacity at indoor sporting events, concerts and theatres will be lowered to 50 per cent, or 1,000 people, whichever is less.

"The government and the chief medical officer of health will continue to monitor the data to determine when it is safe to lift capacity limits in these settings," information from the provincial government reads.

Fourth doses of COVID-19 vaccine for long-term care residents

Effective immediately, all resident of long-term care homes, retirement homes, Elder Care Lodges and other congregate care settings in Ontario are eligible to received a fourth dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

At least three months (84 days) needs to have passed since their third COVID-19 vaccine dose.

By Jan. 28, 2022, the provincial government will mandate all staff, students, volunteers, caregivers and support workers in long-term care settings to have received three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

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