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B.C. considering allowing some COVID-positive health-care workers back on the job

Province's top doc worried that mild cases of Omicron will force large parts of the health-care sector off the job
Dr. Bonnie Henry

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says B.C. is considering making changes to allow COVID-19-positive health-care workers to return to the job faster to combat rising absenteeism.

Henry said Wednesday B.C. is also “looking very carefully” at updated guidance from the U.S. CDC that has reduced the isolation and quarantine period after a positive test result from 10 days to five if there are no symptoms.

Early data on the Omicron variant in B.C. confirms that a “smaller amount of the virus can bind more strongly” to receptors in the upper nose or throat, she said.

“What we are seeing here, which is very similar to what the US CDC based their data, is that people tend to be infectious a day or two before they feel symptoms, but the symptoms tend to be mild and drop off quickly,” she said.

Henry said Omicron’s incubation period — the period of time from when a person contracts the virus to shows symptoms — has fallen from about six days to three.

“So we are looking at that very carefully and whether we can shorten that period of infectivity,” Henry said, adding they have to mitigate the risks associated with the fact that some people, like the immuno-compromised, can shed the virus for much longer.

Henry said they are worried about mild cases of Omicron forcing large parts of the health-care sector off the job. They are looking to see if there are ways that those workers can stay on the job “with appropriate precautions in place.”

Quebec announced a similar move this week and said workers with mild symptoms or asymptomatic cases may be sent to work in COVID-19 wards. Simple exposures to a positive case are also no longer enough to force a worker to stay home. Seriously ill workers will not be on the job.

Henry noted that all health-care workers in B.C. are required to be vaccinated, so cases in that sector have been mild.

"We will be making a decision in the next little while based on our data, but we expect that we are going to see increasing absenteeism given the rates of transmission we're seeing in the community. So it is a consideration,” Henry said.

She noted that British Columbians who are fully vaccinated who have been in contact with a COVID-19 case no longer have to isolate for the incubation period.

“You can continue to go to work, using appropriate masking and self monitoring to be sure that you're not passing it on in the workplace setting,” she said. “So that's another part of it. That helps preserve our health workforces and in those different essential settings, but this is certainly something I'll have more to say on very soon.”