Quebecers with at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine who test positive for the virus will now only have to isolate for five days.
The Quebec government made the announcement at a technical briefing Tuesday. Previously, those who tested positive had to remain in isolation for 10 days following the onset of symptoms.
Children under 12 will also be able to take advantage of the five-day isolation period.
The new measure only applies to those who are asymptomatic or whose symptoms have improved. These people must also have spent 24 hours without a fever before coming out of isolation.
For the following five days, these people must wear a mask and keep a distance of two metres from others.
If these conditions cannot be met, the 10-day isolation remains in effect.
Other provinces — including British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick — have also moved to reduce the isolation period to five days. The United States also only requires a five-day isolation.
With more people being asked to isolate, maintaining the 10-day isolation period would "paralyze" society, said Dr. Marie-France Raynault, senior strategic medical advisor for Quebec Public Health.
Apart from people who are positive for COVID-19, only high-risk contacts will have to self-isolate for five days, including the partner of a positive case or those living in the same household as one. The 10-day isolation period still applies to those who are not double vaccinated.
Moderate-risk contacts, meaning those who have been in contact with a positive case for more than 15 minutes without wearing a mask outside their household, do not need to isolate if they have had two doses of a vaccine or are under 12 years of age. They must keep an eye out symptoms for 10 days and wear a mask.
Last week, the government announced health-care workers in the province with at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine would also have their isolation period reduced, but only to seven days for those who are in direct contact with patients. In some cases, health-care staff infected with the virus may still be called into work.
Other workers in the health-care network will be allowed to follow the new five-day isolation.
'A decision born of expediency,' says doctor
Montreal infectious diseases physician Dr. Matthew Oughton says he has concerns about the shortened isolation period.
"I think it's a decision born of expediency," he said.
While there is accumulating evidence that Omicron has a shorter incubation period, "that's not to say that at five days, zero per cent of people who are infected with Omicron stop being infectious," he said.
Oughton says eliminating the isolation period for medium-risk contacts is also going to come at a cost.
"You're certainly going to have some people who were exposed and actually are developing infection, and we know that people are infectious for at least 24 hours, maybe as much as 48 hours before they really develop symptoms."
Given the severe lack of access to testing in the province, as the government also restricted access to PCR testing for the general public on Tuesday, Oughton says the government will only the know the cost of its decision after the consequences are in full effect.
"Unfortunately, we're going to make this change and we really won't know whether this caused problems or not."
Montreal epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Labos said he considers the new measure reasonable for those who have essential jobs but for the majority of the public, he said he would err on the side of caution and isolate for the full 10 days.
"If you have the capacity to stay home for the full 10-day period, I probably would, because while the risk [of transmission] is pretty low [after five days], the risk is not zero," Labos said.
PCR tests reserved for high-risk populations
Given limited global supply of PCR tests, the government announced the tests will now only be available to certain high-risk individuals.
These groups include health-care workers, hospitalized patients, people experiencing homelessness, Indigenous communities, staff, residents, and caregivers in hospitals, long-term care homes, group homes, shelters and prisons and asymptomatic people in high-risk settings like long-term care homes.
"We have a capacity of about 30,000 tests per day and during last week, for example, we had almost 60,000 tests per day and it's unsustainable," said Raynault.
"We are absolutely overwhelmed by the Omicron wave."
Quebecers who do not fall into these categories are being asked to use rapid tests.
Those who do not have access to a rapid test but have symptoms consistent with those of COVID-19 should consider themselves infected and isolate, the government said.
Meanwhile, Karl Blackburn, president and CEO of Quebec's largest employers' group, the Conseil du patronat du Québec (CPQ), is glad isolation time has been reduced for the general public because it will help combat the dire labour shortage.
"It's very good news," he said. "[The CPQ has] asked for it for a few days."
However, the significant restriction of access to PCR tests, including the shortage of rapid tests provincewide, presents major problems in the workforce where positive COVID-19 tests are regularly required by employers to justify absences from work due to isolation measures.
Raynault told reporters Tuesday that employers "are going to have to trust their employees" when it comes to this situation.
Aware of this issue, however, Radio-Canada says the Ministry of Labour is looking into it.