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People queue to pick up COVID-19 antigen test kits, at Yorkdale Mall, in Toronto, on Dec. 22.STRINGER/Reuters

Welcome to the create-your-own-adventure stage of the pandemic, where your individual experience will be determined by some combination of geography, financial resources, intuition and dumb luck. There is no guidebook, no consensus, no procedure to follow on this Day Eleventy-Billion of Canada’s war against COVID-19. So you woke up with a sore throat, headache and congestion? Fat chance you’ll be able to get a PCR test (unless you can fork over $160 to a private lab or don’t mind standing for hours in the cold). Just assume you have COVID-19, says Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health, B.C’s Provincial Health Officer and others, and good luck to you if you require a test to return to work. On pandemic day Eleventy-Billion, the most we can offer is a presumption and a prayer.

It is now up to you to phone your contacts and let them know that you probably have COVID-19 and to inform them that they probably should isolate and/or take a test if they can afford it. Quebec’s National Director of Public Health, Horacio Arruda, announced more than a week ago that the province was transitioning to self-management for contact tracing and some testing, since it could no longer keep up with the exponential spread of the Omicron variant. Local health authorities in Ottawa, Kingston and Hamilton have issued similar notices. It’s up to you guys now to control the spread of this thing. Yes, the federal government’s once massively touted, multimillion-dollar COVID Alert app still exists, but authorities stopped singing its praises months ago, and with that lapse in attention went any lingering usefulness of an app that only works if it is continuously used and updated.

If you do manage to get your hands on a rapid test, it is up to you to administer it correctly, which includes staying up-to-date on the evolving recommendations for proper swabbing technique. Buried in the Ontario Ministry of Health’s testing guidance update from Dec. 16 is a note that for certain rapid tests, “MOH is of the opinion that it is appropriate from a clinical perspective to conduct specimen collection in a manner that is not currently approved by Health Canada,” which means “combined swabbing of throat and both nares” (which doctors have anecdotally advised on Twitter and elsewhere). Hopefully you have taken to regularly reviewing dense PDFs from your respective health ministries in your spare time.

Those who are blessed with time and financial resources can take additional steps to protect themselves and their families. Many will choose to participate in the third round of vaccine Hunger Games, which is virtually unchanged from the first round of almost a year ago. The determined will wake up and line up for hours before scheduled pop-up clinics and/or put their names on handfuls of wait lists and/or sit by their computers at all hours, constantly hitting “refresh” in the hope of snagging an appointment. How you will fare in this Omicron wave is up to you. Get a booster shot if you can, intuit the right thing to do if you start to feel symptoms and try to make sense of ever-evolving, sometimes contradictory public-health advice.

Speaking of, directives from federal public-health authorities now say “medical masks and respirators provide better protection” from COVID-19 than do the non-medical ones we were first advised to procure and wear, but actually getting your hands on them is up to you. Whereas Germany is providing high-quality masks for free at pharmacies to people over 60 and others with pre-existing medical conditions, and Austria mailed them out to people over 65, Canadians who wish to protect themselves from this incredibly contagious airborne virus with something more effective than a printed piece of cotton have to source and pay for the respirators themselves.

It is a function of good fortune that the implosion of testing, tracing and the orderly distribution of vaccines in many provinces has been met by a variant that does not appear to result in severe illness as often as its predecessors did. Had that not been the case, and had Canadians been left largely on their own to prevent and diagnose a variant that would send many more of them to hospital, the consequences would have surely been catastrophic. Indeed, this “you’re on your own phase” of the pandemic is bearable only because citizens aren’t dying by the hundreds or thousands. It’s an abject institutional failure, buoyed only by dumb luck.

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