No minimum isolation time for those not tested for COVID-19 under new B.C. guidelines

B.C. health officials have quietly changed their guidelines for people experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms, removing the minimum self-isolation time for adults who never tested positive.

Testing collapsed in the province last month amid unprecedented levels of community transmission, prompting officials to reserve limited lab capacity for those at higher risk of serious illness, including seniors and those with certain health conditions. The provincial health officer has instead advised younger people with mild symptoms to assume they have COVID-19 and stay home.

Until recently, those individuals were told to self-isolate for at least five days if fully vaccinated. But on Wednesday, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control revised the guidance on its website without announcement, essentially allowing people to decide what to do on their own. The Fraser Health website did the same on Thursday.

“If you have mild symptoms and do not need a COVID-19 test, stay home until you feel well enough to return to your regular activities,” reads identical wording on both websites.

The BCCDC does instruct people to avoid "non-essential high-risk settings such as long-term care facilities and individuals at higher risk for severe illness for 10 days after the start of your symptoms,” describing symptoms as mild when they can be managed at home.

HEALTH MINISTER DEFENDS UNANNOUNCED CHANGES

Health Minister Adrian Dix was asked about the new guidance Thursday, and defended the unannounced change on a website full of information that’s often changed, noting the BCCDC did apologize for confusion.

"I continue to support public health in making those decisions," said Dix. “The issue is if you're sick, stay home."

When asked to confirm that adults who feel better can stop isolating without a timeline attached, he replied, “That’s right.”

Vaccinated adults who’ve tested positive can't stop isolating until they have been fever-free for 24 hours without medication, their symptoms have improved, and it's been at least five days since their symptoms emerged or since they received their test result. The same goes for children, regardless of their vaccination status. They are also instructed to avoid high-risk settings like long-term are facilities and group gatherings for another five days.

Unvaccinated adults must still wait 10 days since their symptoms started or they tested positive.

It’s the second time in a week that government has quietly made changes to websites without making announcements, with public health orders around gyms and the hospitality industry extended at the 11th hour on Monday

When Dix was asked why his government was struggling with public communication two years into a pandemic, he replied: “I'm not sure we are, in a general sense. It doesn't mean mistakes never get made.”

COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY SLAMMED, WITH WARNINGS OF CONSEQUENCES

Veteran political analyst and Angus Reid Institute president Shachi Kurl pointed out public health and government communications staff are just as exhausted as everyone else, so compassion is warranted.

“Two years into this, we're not seeing the best of anyone," she said. "There is uncertainty, there is anxiety, there is burnout and then you have real gaffes."

While there was considerable public support in early days and a positive response to clearer and more concise communication from Henry and Dix, Kurl says now that pandemic fatigue has deepened and the variants have become more complex, it makes for a dangerous combination when it comes to public health communication.

“What that creates is a perfect storm where people start to tune out and politicians and public health officials run the risk of losing the room,” she said. “That is not something endemic to British Columbia, we're seeing that across the country.”

Sonia Furstenau, the leader of the BC Green Party, has repeatedly urged the government to be more clear and transparent with the public when it comes to information, and raised concerns about B.C.’s policies increasingly diverging from other jurisdictions. 

"Adding to the confusion is we're getting contradictory guidance in B.C. than what is coming from the federal health agency and the World Health Organzition, particularly when it comes to N95 masks, and in this latest example, isolating,” she said.

Both Kurl and Furstenau suggested this was a good opportunity to try different methods of communicating with the public – potentially with different people who have fresh approaches and can provide clear and concise messaging that will cut through pandemic fatigue.

“In a crisis, leadership should be a shared burden and in Ontario you see members of the Independent Science Table speaking to the public and other communicators aligned to the same goal and the same message,” said Furstenau. “Government should always be asking, ‘How do we do better? How do we learn from our mistakes?’”