In Canada, the seven-day rolling average of confirmed COVID-19 cases is up 107 per cent from the previous period, as the Omicron variant surges through the country ahead of the Christmas holidays.
Preliminary data say that Omicron is more transmissible than other variants, and spreading fast wherever it goes. Less hindered by vaccines, COVID-19 cases of the Omicron variant can also spread more easily through a vaccinated population than other variants, as The Globe’s science reporter Ivan Semeniuk reports.
Its transmissibility, rising case counts, and varied or inconsistent access to testing help fuel the spread of COVID-19. Staying home unless you are confident you don’t have the virus offers the best way to protect others and limit its spread.
Are my symptoms COVID-19, the flu or a cold?
COVID-19 symptoms are similar to those of the flu, so Health Canada says anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms should follow the same precautions for COVID-19. Some symptoms of the common cold are similar to those of COVID-19, and the flu.
Initial reports out of South Africa of the Omicron variant show newer symptoms, including scratchy throat, mild muscle aches, extreme tiredness, dry cough and night sweats. But these have not been identified in any cases by Canadian authorities.
Dr. Matthew Miller, an associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton and one of the researchers behind the university’s inhaled COVID-19 vaccine, says that there isn’t any clear evidence yet that the Omicron variant symptoms are significantly different from any of the other variants. “Any changes that we’re seeing relative to earlier cases of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic are more likely a function of whether or not people have underlying immunity,” Dr. Miller says. “That can change the symptom profile. The data is showing that individuals who are vaccinated tend to be experiencing milder illness.”
Could I have COVID-19 and the flu at the same time?
Denys Khaperskyy, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says from a virologist’s point of view, there’s no technical reason this would be impossible, but it’s unlikely that it would happen.
Is my COVID-19 test accurate?
The accuracy of your COVID-19 test depends on a variety of factors, including when you are taking the test in relation to when you came in contact with COVID-19. Rapid tests provide a correct result between 50 to 95 per cent of the time. The variability in accuracy means individuals can test negative while being actively infected. This is called a false negative.
A PCR test, or polymerase chain reaction test, is a lab-based method that uses a deep nasal swab to determine if the coronavirus is present. It provides accurate results about 98 per cent of the time. Getting results back usually takes about 24 hours and can take longer as demand increases, as the test must be performed by trained technicians.
Some health units, like Ottawa Public Health, are still recommending people isolate after a negative rapid test if they have symptoms. In a letter to Ottawa Physicians, Nurse Practitioners, Travel and Walk-In Clinics, Ottawa Public Health said: “Symptomatic individuals must self-isolate even if they test negative on a rapid antigen test as these tests can produce false negative results.”
When should I use rapid tests?
For individuals who aren’t symptomatic or haven’t been in close contact with a confirmed positive case, rapid tests are a good screening tool, according to Dr. Miller. “The caveat is that you want to perform a couple tests a few days apart because sometimes very early after exposure, there’s not enough virus present for rapid tests to capture it,” he says. And if you plan on using rapid tests ahead of a small gathering, Dr. Miller says it’s also critical to do a test the day of the event.
Although rapid tests aren’t as sensitive as PCR test results, Dr. Miller says they’re still a good addition to your tool kit. “People can have rapid test negative outcomes and still test PCR positive, so it’s not perfect. But the good thing about rapid tests is that they directly look for virus, whereas PCR tests look for fragments of the virus, which can sometimes persist in individuals long after they’re infectious.”
What should I do if I have symptoms, test positive, or am a close contact of someone who tests positive?
Across Canada, isolation and testing guidelines vary based on testing supply, severity of outbreak, health care system capacities and government policy. When in doubt, isolate until you can confirm you’re not carrying COVID-19. And don’t forget to take note of the date you first experience symptoms and the date of any tests. This will help you calculate how long you need to isolate for.
According to Dr. Miller, adhering to self-isolating guidelines has never been more important than at this current moment in the pandemic. “It’s the time of year when we’re used to gathering, so it’s tough to have the discipline to self-isolate,” says Dr. Miller. “But one could argue it’s never been more important in terms of trying to stem the rising tide of transmission.”
The rapid spike in cases over such a short period of time will challenge our hospital capacity, Dr. Miller says, so it’s critical that individuals self-isolate to avoid passing the virus on to more people.
If you need to self-isolate but live with other people, Dr. Miller says the ideal scenario is to limit your movements to a single floor, like a basement, or room, and use your own dedicated bathroom. If you need to share a bathroom, open windows and turn on the bathroom fan. “The virus is clearly airborne, so allow for good ventilation between the next person using the restroom,” he says. “It also doesn’t hurt to have Lysol wipes or bathroom spray on hand to wipe down high-touch surfaces like toilet handles and faucets, but air exchange is really key.”
If you have symptoms: Alberta lists a set of “core symptoms,” including cough, fever, shortness of breath, runny nose, sore throat and loss of taste or smell for adults over 18. If you have any of these symptoms you need to get tested and isolate for at least 10 days from the start of symptoms, unless you receive a negative test result.
If you tested positive: You must isolate for a minimum of 10 days from the start of symptoms. If your symptoms persist after 10 days, you need to continue isolating until they resolve.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: As of July, close contacts of positive cases are no longer required to quarantine for 14 days. That said, the province recommends booking a COVID-19 test right away, and if symptoms develop, isolate. Strong recommendation that people who are not vaccinated stay home for at least 14 days.
If you have symptoms: Start self-isolation right away at the onset of COVID-19 symptoms and use the B.C. COVID-19 self-assessment tool to see if you need to be tested. On Friday, Dec. 24, B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry implored people to consider themselves infectious with the Omicron variant if they had even mild symptoms, and asked younger people to consider isolating for seven days without getting a test if they have symptoms.
If you test positive: Self isolate at home for at least 10 days since the start of your symptoms.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: Self-monitor for symptoms for 14 days after being exposed to someone with COVID-19 and get tested if you develop any COVID-19 symptoms.
If you have symptoms: Manitoba has two classifications of symptoms, and whether to self-isolate depends on how many and which symptoms you have. Use the COVID-19 screening tool for directions. People with symptoms not known to be exposed to COVID-19 can return to normal activities with a negative test, no fever and symptoms improving for 24 hours. People who have symptoms and were in contact with a known COVID-19 case must continue to isolate for 10 days, even after receiving a negative test result.
If you test positive: You must isolate for at least 10 days or until symptoms are improving.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: The province of Manitoba will no longer be contacting people who have come in contact with a positive case, ahead of anticipated surges in Omicron cases. Public Health is asking positive cases to notify their close contacts of their positive case. Most close contacts need to self-isolate after coming in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case.
If you have symptoms: New Brunswickers can use the self-assessment tool to sign up for a test. People with two or more symptoms must isolate while waiting for their test result.
If you test positive: You must isolate. New Brunswick Public Health will provide direction on isolation length.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: Vaccinated household contacts must self-isolate until receiving a negative PCR test five days after initial exposure. If negative, they no longer need to isolate, but require a second test on the 10th day. Close contacts must isolate and get a COVID-19 test. Close contacts without symptoms who are not fully vaccinated should pick up an at-home COVID-19 Rapid Point of Care Test, and do not need to isolate unless instructed by Public Health to do so. Fully vaccinated people should self-monitor for symptoms for 14 days, and get tested immediately if any develop.
Newfoundland and Labrador
If you have symptoms: Stay home, self-isolate immediately and complete the COVID-19 self-assessment tool.
If you test positive: You will get a call from Public Health telling you what to do next. Do not visit your family doctor’s office and only go to your Emergency Department if it is an emergency.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: Individuals who are identified as close contacts of a positive case are notified by Public Health. Contacts often require testing and/or to self-isolate.
If you have symptoms: Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of travel and vaccination status, should isolate immediately and arrange for testing.
If you test positive: Your health care provider will contact you with your results. If you test positive for COVID-19, they will advise on what to do. For most, this means isolating at home. The NWT Office of the Chief Public Officer is also advising those who test positive to stay close to community centres while isolating, in case access to health care services is required.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: A health care provider will contact you and give you instructions on what you need to do next.
If you have symptoms: If in the past 48 hours you’ve had or you currently have a new or worsening cough or two of the following symptoms – fever, headache, runny nose or nasal congestion, sore throat, shortness of breath – you need to self-isolate and complete a COVID-19 self-assessment. As of Friday, Dec. 24, people who have COVID-19 symptoms now have to complete an online self-assessment before receiving a PCR test.
If you test positive: A positive test result on a rapid antigen test no longer requires verification with a PCR test. If you take a PCR test and it is positive, Public Health will call you. Self-isolate right away, and ask your household contacts to self-isolate right away, too. On Jan. 5, Nova Scotia shortened the self isolation period for vaccinated Nova Scotians to seven days. Unvaccinated or immunocompromised Nova Scotians must isolate for 10 days.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: People who were in close contact with a positive case now have to complete an online self-assessment before receiving a PCR test. If a fully vaccinated person or child who is 11 or younger is a close contact of a positive case they should get tested 72 hours after exposure and watch for symptoms. They should stay at home except to go to school, work or child care, work from home as much as possible, practice physical distancing, only do essential activities such as getting groceries or prescriptions if there is nobody else who can do it for them until they get their first negative test result. Unvaccinated people must immediately isolate for seven days.
If you have symptoms: Self-isolate and follow up with your health care professional. If you develop a fever, cough or difficulty breathing in the next 14 days, call your health care provider or local public health authority.
If you test positive: Stay at home until the public health authority advises that you are no longer at risk of spreading the virus to others.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: You will be contacted by your health centre and notified of what steps you need to take.
If you have symptoms: Effective December 31, publicly-funded PCR testing will be available only for high-risk individuals who are symptomatic and/or are at risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and workers and residents in the highest risk settings, as well as vulnerable populations. Members of the general public with mild symptoms are asked not to seek testing. A full list of eligible individuals can be found here.
If you test positive: As of Dec. 30, the province has shortened the isolation period to five days from 10 days following the onset of symptoms for those who are vaccinated as well as children under 12 years old. These individuals can end isolation after five days if their symptoms are improved for at least 24 hours and all public health and safety measures, such as masking and physical distancing, are followed. Non-household contacts are required to self-monitor for ten days.
Individuals who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated or immunocompromised will be required to isolate for 10 days
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: If you are fully vaccinated and have symptoms, you should self-isolate and get tested right away. If your test is positive, you must self-isolate for 10 days. If it’s negative, you can stop self-isolating once symptoms have been improving for at least 24 hours. If you are fully vaccinated and have no symptoms, you are likely not required to self-isolate but should get tested.
If you are not fully vaccinated, you should self-isolate and get tested right away. If your test is negative, you are recommended to retest seven days later. If your household members are fully vaccinated, they don’t need to self-isolate. If they are not, they should also self-isolate and get tested.
Prince Edward Island
If you have symptoms: PEI urges anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 to get tested for the virus and self-isolate until the results come back. Results should be available online within 72 hours of getting tested.
If you test positive: The province uses a PCR test to determine if you are positive for COVID-19, which can also see if someone is infected with a variant. If the test is positive, the province’s Chief Public Health Officer will be in contact with your directly, and you must self-isolate and follow public health advice.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: You must self-isolate and follow public health advice.
If you have symptoms: On Jan. 4, the Quebec Health Department said that members of the general public with COVID-19 symptoms will not be eligible for PCR testing and should consider themselves positive and isolate for five days if they do not have access to self-tests. The province will reserve PCR tests for those considered “high risk,” such as symptomatic hospital patients, people who live in congregate care and people being transferred between medical facilities.
If you test positive: On Jan. 4, the province also reduced the isolation period for people who are fully vaccinated who test positive for COVID-19. People who have had two doses of the vaccine or children under 12 years old now need to self-isolate for five days, down from 10 days, following the onset of symptoms or from the date of a COVID-19 test if they are asymptomatic. People who isolate for five days must not have a fever for at least 24 hours, and their symptoms must be improving before they leave isolation. For the following five days, these people must wear a mask and keep a distance of two metres from others.
If someone is unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, they need to isolate for 10 days.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: The province defines close contact as being within less two metres of a confirmed positive case for at least 15 minutes. Close contacts must self-isolate. For those who are not “adequately protected against COVID-19,″ a close contact must self-isolate 10 days after the last contact with a COVID-positive person. Those who are “adequately protected” do not need to self-isolate, but should monitor their symptoms for 14 days and get tested between day three and five after exposure.
If you have symptoms: Even if you have the mildest symptoms, the province recommends you get tested.
If you test positive: On Dec. 30, the government announced it is cutting the isolation time for those who are fully vaccinated but test positive for COVID-19 to five days from 10. People who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated need to self-isolate for 10 days from the date of test or 48 hours after your symptoms have ended, whichever is later.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: Saskatchewan’s public health say it lacks capacity to notify all close contacts of a positive COVID-19 case. If you are not fully vaccinated, get tested and self-isolate for at least 14 days from the date of last exposure. If you are fully vaccinated, call 811 if COVID-19 symptoms develop. You do not need to self-isolate unless symptomatic. All contacts who develop symptoms should seek testing immediately.
If you have symptoms: Self-isolate, and then do a self-assessment test. Also contact your health care provider or local health centre and follow the advice provided.
If you test positive: Continue to self-isolate. A nurse from Yukon Communicable Disease Control (YCDC) will call you within 48 hours. Most people will need to self-isolate for 10 days, but some people may need to isolate longer.
If you are a close contact of a COVID-19 case: If you’re fully vaccinated, self-monitor for symptoms for 14 days after the date of your last exposure to the person with whom you’ve been in contact. If you start developing symptoms, self-isolate and arrange to get tested. If you’re not fully vaccinated, self-isolate for 10 days after the date of your last exposure and then self-monitor for symptoms for an additional four days. If you develop any symptoms, no matter how mild, arrange to get tested.
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