Ontario is dropping the mandatory five-day isolation period for those who test positive for COVID-19, the province's top doctor announced Wednesday.
The move is part of the province's broader plan to prepare for the fall respiratory illness season, and comes just as Ontario wastewater data is showing a slight uptick in the amount of COVID-19 in the province.
Dr. Kieran Moore said the COVID-19 pandemic has moved out of a "crisis phase" and become something that will require long-term management. The seventh wave has crested, he said, but the virus "remains in the community" and Public Health Ontario expects to see an increase in transmission as more people gather inside during the cooler fall months.
However, Moore said the province is moving away from COVID-19-specific guidance in favour of an "all-virus approach," meaning the new isolation guidelines will apply to other illnesses such as the flu as well.
Here are the guidelines Moore outlined for the general public:
If you have symptoms of any respiratory illness, stay home until symptoms have improved for at least 24 hours.
If you have a fever, stay home until it's completely gone.
If you have gastrointestinal symptoms, stay home until symptoms have improved for at least 48 hours.
After isolating at home, wear a mask in public for 10 days since the onset of symptoms.
If sick, avoid non-essential visits to vulnerable or older people for a full 10 days starting the day after symptoms appear — including visits to high-risk settings such as long-term care homes and hospitals.
If you're in the same household as someone who is sick or tested positive for COVID-19, mask in public spaces, even if you feel better, and avoid vulnerable individuals and settings for 10 days after exposure. Isolate immediately if you develop symptoms.
"We're trying to be practical and pragmatic in our approach and these recommendations may change if we see more impact of respiratory viruses on the health of Ontarians and our communities," Moore said.
"This approach should decrease the risk of all respiratory viruses in our communities," said Moore, noting other provinces have already taken this step.
Opposition wary of move
Ontario Liberal health critic Dr. Adil Shamji said he is "deeply concerned" about the move as some Ontario hospitals have experienced shut-downs throughout the summer as a result of health-care staff shortages,.
"This press conference started out by saying we're trying to move out of crisis mode," said Shamji, who's also the MPP for Don Valley East
"We've got ERs closing, ICUs closing, nearly 1,400 people admitted in hospital with COVID-19, and we're not even in respiratory [illness] season yet."
Data published by the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table shows wastewater signals, an early trend indicator, have ticked up since mid-August after declining for three weeks.
Last week, the group said that it will be dissolved early next month after more than two years of helping inform Ontario's response to the pandemic.
Province expands booster eligibility to kids 5 to 11
The announcement also comes as students are set to return to schools for the first time without COVID-19 restrictions.
Moore said improvements such as better ventilation and environmental cleaning in schools, combined with the level of immunization across Ontario, mean "we now can have a more permissive approach to return."
Children aged 5 to 11 who've waited six months following their most recent dose of COVID-19 vaccine will be able to book their first booster as of Thursday, Moore said. The boosters have been available to children 12 and up and adults in the province for several months.
The province states appointments will be available through its vaccine portal starting at 8 a.m. ET, and parents can also book through their local public health units, participating pharmacies or health-care providers.
Health Canada approved COVID-19 booster doses for children aged 5 to 11 on Aug. 19. While Saskatchewan and Alberta had since expanded eligibility to include the age group, Ontario has not until now, just days before children are set to return to school.
"I know it wasn't quick enough for some individuals, but I appreciate people's patience," says Moore.
Moore outlines 3 steps to stay healthy this fall
As colder weather approaches, Moore is asking Ontarians to do three things: continue wearing a mask when "it's right for you," be up to date with all vaccinations, and stay home if sick.
"I'd like to remind Ontarians that wearing a good fitting mask does not only prevent the spread of COVID-19, but other respiratory illnesses as well, including the flu," said Moore.
Moore says he's concerned that people are behind on routine immunizations such as hepatitis B, meningitis and HPV vaccinations — particularly students who normally receive these vaccines at school.
"We have plans to deal with it this fall, and to get back into all schools and work with schools boards, public health agencies, as well as primary care."
Moore says the province, like in previous years, will be prioritizing seniors and those in long-term care homes for the flu shot, but will be available to everyone to six months of age and older.