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The importance of self-isolation

The Alberta Government has updated its rules regarding self-isolation timelines and set hefty fines for those who do not follow public health orders.

Originally, the province requested people who were feeling sick, were in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or recently returned home from international travel, to self-isolate for 14 days. But Alberta’s chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw has now provided a new directive.

“The most up-to-date medical evidence now indicates that if you are feeling well after 10 days from the onset of symptoms, you will be able to stop self-isolating, provided your symptoms have resolved,” Hinshaw said during her March 23 daily briefing. “This new approach, which has been adopted in other provinces, reflects the fact that the number-one thing you can do if you have mild symptoms isn’t to get tested — it’s to stay home and self-isolate.”

However, she added, the changes only apply to those who are feeling sick. People who have recently returned from international travel are now legally mandated to self-isolate for a full two weeks, under the federal Quarantine Act, as are those who were directly exposed to someone with COVID-19.

"Public health orders will now be enforced by law to protect the health and safety of Albertans," read a release from the province. "Fines for violating an order have increased to a prescribed fine of $1,000 per occurrence. Courts will also have increased powers to administer fines of up to $100,000 for a first offence and up to $500,000 for a subsequent offence for more serious violations."

Furthermore, Hinshaw stressed the timelines can be extended if the person starts to notice symptoms of COVID-19 – a dry cough, fever or difficulty breathing – partway through the self-isolation period.

“Should they start to experience symptoms, they must also follow the same 10-day guidance,” Hinshaw said. “This means that if a person returned from abroad and experienced symptoms after seven days, they will be required to self-isolate for 10 [additional] days from the start of symptoms. In this example, that would extend their self-isolation to 17 days.”

According to the government, the importance of self-isolation and the length of time attached to it, is due to COVID-19’s incubation period – the time between initial exposure and when someone starts to feel sick. This incubation period can last anywhere from two to 14 days.

“The virus can linger in our system, even if we’re asymptomatic,” said Dr. Fozia Alvi, a Bearspaw resident and physician who runs a family practice in Airdrie.

“For example, people are not feeling sick and think that, because they don’t have symptoms, they can go out. But actually, they are still contagious at this stage, and they’re spreading the virus by their breathing. And the virus can remain on surfaces – clothing, steel surfaces, hard surfaces – for up to 72 hours.”

In terms of how to properly self-isolate, the government directs people to stay home and avoid close contact with others, including other members of the household and pets. Self-isolators should not take public transit.

Those in self-isolation are also asked to not share household items, such as cutlery, drinking glasses, pillows and towels, and to regularly disinfect frequently touched surfaces, including doorknobs and counters. Having a separate bedroom and bathroom is also ideal, according to Hinshaw.

Alvi said abiding by these measures, even if you feel fine, is crucial to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Our chief medical officer, Dr. Hinshaw, is explaining to us that we want to ‘flatten the curve,’ meaning we want to stretch it out so that we don’t have too many sick people at the same time, because we don’t have the resources to take care of them,” she said.

“In spite of all that education and information in the media, people are still out there and that’s how it’s spreading.”

Other directives for self-isolation include frequent and thorough hand washing, avoiding touching your face and covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing.

The government also suggests creating a household action plan in the case of someone requiring self-isolation. This includes creating an emergency contact list, determining what supplies are necessary and if they can delivered.

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Scott Strasser,
Follow me on Twitter @scottstrasser19