Across the world, essential and frontline workers are struggling with the threat of COVID-19. At risk are teachers, students, retail workers and all frontline medical staff. In spite of the PPE and special procedures, the threat of contracting the coronavirus is a dangerous reality. If a frontline health professional is forced to self-isolate for two weeks, who replaces them? No hospital can afford a shortage of essential staff, not now. If teachers contract the virus, the impact on students could be significant. Which is why finding ways to reduce the burden this isolation has placed on society is critical.

Dr. Benjamin Smith

In the months since the pandemic was declared, my team and I have been studying health care workers at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) who are isolating after a COVID-19 exposure to determine if early viral testing can be used to shorten isolation. The results of our analyses to date suggest a strategy that can cut the mandatory isolation in half, from fourteen days to just seven.

Our team recruited and monitored health care workers following high-risk exposure to the coronavirus. While they were undergoing isolation, each participant received a test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, on days 7, 9, 10 and 14 after being exposed. We found that all individuals who developed COVID-19 had a positive viral test on day seven post-exposure – no individual with a negative test by day seven became ill afterward. The implications of this finding are clear: the two-week isolation period very prudently required by governments, health agencies and workplaces could potentially be reduced through the strategic use of testing on day seven of isolation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States recently updated quarantine recommendations for its citizens. They now recommend that quarantine times need only be 10 days, or seven days with a negative COVID-19 test. This change perfectly reflects the methods and results of our research, and with further validation Canada could also adopt this updated measure.

We have already seen public policy evolve throughout the pandemic as research has advanced our understanding of the virus: mask guidelines are a perfect example of this. The pace of research and the COVID-19 pandemic is such that guidelines are changing all the time. Now, we have an opportunity to change how and when we isolate.

An evidence-based isolation policy is in the best interest of all Canadians. It has the potential to reduce staff shortages in hospitals, help caregivers and businesses overcome numerous obstacles, and allow us to return to more normal daily lives.

Dr. Benjamin Smith, MD
Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre

Dr. Don Sheppard, MD
McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4)

Dr. Marcel Behr, MD
McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4)

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