The Ontario government has announced plans to change the usage of rapid COVID-19 tests, as the provincial testing system continues to face ongoing pressure due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

Rapid tests are still hard to come by – especially in northwestern Ontario. That’s why the province is now limiting rapid testing for those considered most vulnerable.

Rapid tests are now being reserved for test-to-work policies to allow employees to return to work after illness, regular testing of workers in high-risk jobs and for people who aren’t eligible for PCR tests.

The new recommendation includes unvaccinated workers who are required to undertake rapid antigen testing twice weekly to go into work, but does not include the use of rapid testing for social events.

“Given how quickly the Omicron virus has spread, we must preserve these limited resources for those who need them the most to make these tests useful for clinical and for public health decision making,” said Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.

As well, if you’re symptomatic of COVID-19 but show negative results from two rapid tests, taken 24 to 48 hours apart, Ontario says you’re now asked to isolate until symptoms improve for at least 24 hours, or 48 hours if the symptoms include gastrointestinal illness.   

In an announcement January 6, Ontario says their supply of rapid tests will be headed to vital settings first, such as hospitals, shelters, long-term care homes and Indigenous communities.

On January 4, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government would be accelerating the delivery of rapid tests to provinces, as PCR testing is now limited.

Ontario adds they expect over 54 million rapid tests from the federal government this month, on top of another 85 million tests the province has purchased.

Still, they don’t expect supplies at pop-up testing sites, which never made their way to northwestern Ontario, to continue. Rapid tests were being provided at settings such as malls, retail stores, holiday markets, libraries and select LCBO locations.

This comes as the province reported over 13,000 new cases of COVID-19 on January 6, which Public Health Ontario warns is likely higher, due to recent PCR testing changes.

On December 30, Ontario announced that PCR testing would be prioritized for those considered most vulnerable, including education staff, those who work in First Nation communities and those in high-risk settings.

This means that individuals who are vaccinated, as well as children under 12, who have symptoms of COVID-19 are now required to self-isolate for five days following the onset of symptoms, but won’t be able to get tested to confirm their illness.

As well, individuals who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated or immunocompromised will be required to self-isolate for 10 days. Individuals are asked to end their isolation if their symptoms have improved for at least 24 hours, and all public health measures are being followed.

“If you have symptoms of COVID-19, are not eligible for PCR tests and do not have access to a rapid antigen test, you should assume, given the high community prevalence, that you have COVID-19, and you should stay home and self-isolate according to our newest guidelines,” adds Moore.

However, Moore says you’re asked to not visit high-risk settings such as hospitals or long-term care homes for at least 10 days after the onset of your symptoms.