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Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health, speaks at a press conference at Queen’s Park in Toronto in April.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s guidelines for COVID-19 will no longer require a five-day isolation period, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health announced Wednesday, as part of the plan he unveiled that includes offering booster shots to children aged 5 to 11.

The changes to the isolation period, which Dr. Kieran Moore said other provinces including Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec have already made, mean even COVID-19 positive people could return to work or school, provided their symptoms are improving. He said immunization levels mean the risks posed by the virus are lower than before.

Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park, Dr. Moore said parents would be able to book booster vaccine appointments for children who are at least six months from their last shot starting at 8 a.m. on Thursday – just days before classes are set to resume across the province.

The move comes just shy of two weeks after Health Canada approved the booster shot for children, and after other provinces announced similar plans. Dr. Moore said the delay was needed to prepare health directives and vaccine supplies.

Dr. Moore’s new guidelines that do away with the five-day isolation period for people who test positive for COVID-19 still recommend those with respiratory or other symptoms to mask for 10 days after symptoms first appear and avoid high-risk settings, such as long-term care homes, and older or immunocompromised people.

The pandemic isn’t over, and ending Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table won’t help matters

Under the new guidelines, anyone experiencing cough, fever, a runny nose or an upset stomach – with or without a positive COVID-19 test – should stay home until any fever is gone and any other symptoms have been improving for 24 hours, or 48 hours in the case of gastrointestinal symptoms.

According to the government’s media release, the new guidelines also advise anyone who is in contact with someone who tests positive to wear a mask for 10 days when in public.

The Chief Medical Officer of Health said the measures were meant to also curtail influenza and other respiratory illnesses that circulate in the fall and put strain on the health system, not just COVID-19.

He urged Ontarians to get their COVID-19 shots, wear a mask “when it is right for you,” and stay home when sick. While he said mask mandates or isolation rules could return if future waves of the virus put the health system at risk, he did not foresee any need to return to capacity restrictions or shutdowns for retailers.

“Our collective efforts are helping us move away from a crisis phase to a more sustainable approach to the long-term management of COVID-19,” Dr. Moore said.

Critics said the end of the five-day isolation period comes too soon, with the return of classes, where masking is optional, likely to cause a spike in cases this fall.

Adil Shamji, the Liberal MPP for Don Valley East and an emergency room doctor, said he was “deeply concerned” about eliminating the five-day isolation period without a plan to increase other measures to stop transmission in schools.

“I am aware that [the removal of the isolation period] has happened in some jurisdictions around the world. But my advice would have been different if we weren’t in a crisis,” Dr. Shamji told reporters. “We’ve got ERs closing, ICUs closing, nearly 1,400 people admitted in hospital right now with COVID-19.”

Dr. Moore also took questions Wednesday about the government’s recent move to disband its independent COVID-19 Science Table, and instead establish a new advisory body within its Public Health Ontario (PHO) agency.

Critics have charged the move was meant to silence the table, which had clashed with the government several times during the pandemic over plans to loosen COVID-19 restrictions. Dr. Moore said he had “complete confidence” in PHO, which he said intends to provide an “independent voice to government.”

Andrew Morris, a senior infectious-diseases doctor at Toronto’s Mount Sinai and University Health Network hospitals and a member of the science table, said in an interview that the new arrangement will result in less independent scientific advice.

He also said it was hard to say if the province’s announcement on Wednesday was the right move in the absence of more data about the impact of “long COVID” on the work force and the economy.

“I think it’s very clear that this government is taking the approach that paying attention to COVID is no longer in their interest,” Dr. Morris said.

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