C/O Georgia Kirkos

McMaster experts share insights about the updated guidelines and their effects on the spread of Omicron

After relatively steady COVID-19 case counts throughout the fall, the highly contagious Omicron variant was identified in Ontario at the end of November. Since then, case counts have skyrocketed, surpassing 10,000 cases for the first time on Dec. 25. 

In response to the increase in COVID-19 cases, the Ontario government has updated public health guidelines, putting in place more restrictions for Ontario residents. This includes stricter gathering limits, closure of events and businesses, shortened quarantine times for individuals tested positive and limits on who can access a PCR test. 

The gathering limits in Ontario have been reduced to five people indoors or ten people outdoors. Weddings, funerals and religious services, when held indoors, are limited to 50 per cent capacity of the spaces they are held in. When held outdoors, they must allow for full social distancing between all attendees. Further, businesses and employers must ensure that their employees are working remotely, assuming that this is feasible. 

In terms of business closures, indoor dining, theatres, gyms and other similar spaces are required to close completely. Other spaces such as retail settings and public libraries can remain open at 50 per cent capacity. 

Zain Chagla, Associate Professor of Medicine at McMaster University, emphasized the importance of these closures for Ontario. According to Chagla, the highly contagious Omicron variant will likely infect a large portion of the population, regardless of public health measures; however, the public health guidelines should slow the spread of Omicron to prevent placing a strain on the healthcare system. 

“The hope is [that] public health measures might delay or slow down some of that spread, so [that the Omicron variant spreads] over two to three months, as compared to one month, where hospitals [could] easily become overwhelmed,” said Chagla. 

“The hope is [that] public health measures might delay or slow down some of that spread, so [that the Omicron variant spreads] over two to three months, as compared to one month, where hospitals [could] easily become overwhelmed.”

Zain Chagla, Associate Professor of Medicine at McMaster University

Chagla also noted that slowing the spread of Omicron should ensure that essential services still have enough people to operate them in the meantime.

“People, even if they are mild with COVID, still need to isolate and that has downstream impacts on the ability to staff hospitals, police, fire stations, grocery stores, etc. Again, spreading that out a little bit would at least allow some of those essential industries and essential care services to stay open,” explained Chagla. 

In addition to stricter COVID-19 related restrictions, Ontario has also made changes to their rules surrounding testing and isolation. 

Publicly funded PCR tests, previously available to anyone with symptoms of COVID-19, are now only accessible to symptomatic individuals deemed high-risk by the province. As well, most people who test positive for COVID-19 using a rapid antigen test will no longer be expected to confirm their test result with a PCR test; instead, the province has instructed those people to assume that they have COVID-19 and to isolate for the recommended period.

The recommended isolation period, which was previously ten days since the onset of COVID-19 symptoms, has been shortened to five days since the onset of COVID-19 symptoms, for vaccinated individuals and children under twelve. Ontario was not the only province to implement this change; British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have announced shorter isolation periods as well. 

Chief Medical Officers and Health Ministers of various provinces have given a range of reasons for the shortened isolation time, such as a far lower risk of transmission after five days, greater incentive to self-test when the quarantine time is shorter and prevention of unmanageable disruptions to the workforce. 

In terms of what the changing restrictions will mean for students at McMaster, Chagla pointed out that McMaster’s decision to delay the full return to campus to Feb. 7 will allow students extra time to obtain their third vaccine doses.

“I really want to reassure people, especially young individuals attending Mac, that [if] you get your booster [and] get your two doses, yes, there’s a good shot that you would still get COVID in the next few months, but the outcomes are going to be really, really benign,” said Chagla. 

According to Lori Burrows, Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster, obtaining a booster shot is one of the most effective ways to combat the Omicron wave. 

According to Lori Burrows, Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster, obtaining a booster shot is one of the most effective ways to combat the Omicron wave. 

Burrows emphasized the importance of being careful in the meantime because, while Omicron is generally less severe for vaccinated individuals, it is still dangerous. 

“The natural course of evolution for any virus or pathogen is to become less pathogenic over time because if you’re a virus, your goal is to infect as many hosts as possible. If you kill your host, that’s a bad strategy from an evolutionary standpoint. So, most pathogens become less pathogenic over time, but better at transmitting,” explained Burrows. 

Burrows added that, while this seems to be the direction that Omicron is heading in, it isn’t there yet. 

“It’s still killing people, so we have got to keep that in mind and we still have to be careful,” said Burrows.

“It’s still killing people, so we have got to keep that in mind and we still have to be careful.”

Lori Burrows, Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster

Despite this, Burrows emphasized that some level of optimism is important because we have made significant progress in fighting COVID-19 over the last two years. As Burrows explained, we did not have vaccines, medications or any understanding of COVID-19 when the pandemic first began. Now, two years later, we are far better equipped to handle the pandemic. 

“We are in a better place than we were two years ago,” said Burrows. 

Image courtesy of Georgia Kirkos

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