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Shorter isolation allowed in Ontario if two rapid tests come back negative

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TORONTO — Rapid antigen COVID-19 tests won't be available to the general Ontario population for the next little while amid a supply crunch and an ongoing virus surge  — but people with the means to access them can get out of virus-related isolation sooner. 

Officials said Thursday that people who develop symptoms can resume their regular activities sooner than the required five days — the new isolation period for fully vaccinated people and kids under 12 — if two rapid tests taken at least 24 hours apart come back negative, and if their symptoms improve for 24 hours.

It's still recommended that people who are sick stay home until symptoms improve.

The update came as the province laid out its broad plans for the increased supply of at least 54.3 million rapid tests expected from the federal government this month, on top of another 85 million tests purchased provincially. 

With rapid test demand predicted to rise to 18 million tests weekly — and the gold-standard PCR tests restricted to people considered at the highest risk — the province said it will need to keep prioritizing rapid tests for high-risk sectors like hospitals, long-term care homes and for jobs with vaccine-or-test mandates. 

Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's top doctor, advised that people would have to go without a test confirming their diagnosis if they develop COVID-19 symptoms, noting that few other viruses are currently circulating to account for common symptoms like congestion, fatigue, headache or muscle aches. 

"Right now, given the high community prevalence of COVID-19, testing is a luxury," Moore told a Thursday news conference. 

"The vast majority of Ontarians will be able to stay at home, to take a Tylenol or ibuprofen or fluids to help us get over our symptoms."

He said every Ontarian should be monitoring for symptoms as the Omicron variant continues to drive spread.

He added that the province is "fortunate" that Omicron appears to result in more mild illness on an individual level, but it's causing strain on the health system due to the variant's transmissibility, which is pushing infections up to record levels.

It's not known exactly how many Ontarians are currently infected with COVID-19 because of recent policy changes making PCR tests less accessible. The province reported 13,339 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday but Public Health Ontario has warned that the actual case count is likely higher.

Twenty new virus deaths were also reported on Thursday as hospitalizations climbed to 2,279 COVID-19 patients, including 319 people in intensive care.

Rapid tests are being reserved for test-to-work plans so people can resume work sooner after an exposure, regular testing of workers in high-risk jobs and for people with symptoms who aren’t eligible for PCR tests.

Supply will go first to settings like long-term care homes, hospitals, shelters and Indigenous communities, with further supply for some education settings and workplaces with vaccinate-or-test mandates.

More than two million rapid tests were distributed to the public for free starting in the month of December, with supply snapped up quickly as pop-up sites in malls, transit hubs and liquor stores drew long lines. 

That initiative won't continue as the province rations its rapid test supply for key sectors. People can pay to access rapid tests in pharmacies or buy them from some retailers or producers, however.

The province said it's developing plans to expand public access to rapid tests, but that will depend on supply.

On Wednesday, a number of stricter health measures — including widespread business closures and a temporary return to online schooling — took effect in Ontario in a bid to rein in Omicron spread and preserve health system capacity. 

The province has also directed hospitals to pause non-urgent surgeries due to skyrocketing COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

Moore said the surgery decision was taken "regrettably" to free up hospital space and said he's hopeful that the new restrictions, which will last at least three weeks, will result in improvements after a "tough January." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2022.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press