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COVID-19 levels in Canada are very high right now. Why testing yourself matters more than ever

Experts are urging people remain vigilant when it comes to their health and others', with numbers for COVID-19 indicators at their highest point yet this year.

Saskatchewan underestimated how many rapid antigen tests were needed during the height of the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also touting the tests as a key part of its plan to halt transmission of the virus, internal emails indicate. Positive, left, and negative COVID-19 antigen rapid tests are picture in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Indoor office and family parties are par for the course for the month of December, along with packed shopping centres crowded with last-minute shoppers — all of which are ideal conditions to spread viruses like COVID-19.

Experts are urging people remain vigilant when it comes to their health and protecting others, with numbers for COVID-19 indicators at their highest point yet this year.

Fahad Razak is an internist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, as well as a Canada research chair in data-informed healthcare improvement at University of Toronto.

He says that while testing numbers are not as reliable and available as at the start of the pandemic, as a result of the decline of widespread PCR testing, all the other indicators are showing that current COVID-19 rates are very high.

These include wastewater testing and PCR testing still being done in high-risk settings like hospitals and care homes.

“The wastewater numbers in Ontario and across the country are currently at the highest they’ve been in over a year,” he tells Yahoo Canada. “It suggests that infections are at the highest point that they’ve occurred in over a year.”

Experts: 'Infections ... can be very disruptive'

Razak says that while rapid antigen tests (RAT) are not perfect, they still play a key role in detection and prevention.

“There’s a value in testing yourself,” he says. “These infections, even if you don’t end up in hospital, can be very disruptive. An infection prevented wherever possible is a good thing. The goal at this point is to get life as back to normal as possible and if you’re going into a situation like work or family gatherings, and a lot of people are being infected and exposed, it makes those things harder to do.”

He adds that the most helpful way to use RAT at home is with the onset of symptoms. If the test is positive, it’s definitely COVID-19. If it’s negative, remains so for three consecutive days, and you are still symptomatic, it’s highly likely that you are sick with something other than COVID-19.

“These tests are helpful in ruling out COVID,” Razak says.  

Is my COVID-19 test expired?

When it comes to possibly expired RAT COVID-19 tests, Razak says the dates listed on the boxes are arbitrary. That's because when many home COVID-19 tests were initially put on the market, they had a conservative estimation on how long the shelf life would be. Health Canada and the FDA in the U.S. have since extended expiry dates on many RAT tests, as data has shown they can still function effectively two years after their post-manufacturing date.

The government of Canada also has a website available to search the shelf life of specific RAT tests, along with other medical devices related to COVID-19.  

“All of the tests that are floating around right now are good to use,” Razak says. “They’ll remain effective to use to tell if you’re positive or negative. They’re an effective tool.”

He says that if you’re interested to learn more about the specific test you have, look at the expiry date on the box and add a year.

All of the tests that are floating around right now are good to use.

Canada reacts: Are we still testing for COVID-19?

A Ontario subreddit thread on Dec. 5that asked if people were still testing for the virus was met with mixed responses.

Many in the comments, including some who work in healthcare, articulated the importance of testing when they're sick, especially if they weren't sure of what it could be.

"Yes (I test) whenever I have symptoms that could suggest I may have it," MDequation wrote. "Helps in ruling out things."

"If I get sick, I rapid test for a couple days," FutureProg wrote. "I'm not gonna take the risk of getting long COVID or giving it to someone else. Not worth it."

Others said they didn’t feel the need to test, especially if they’re isolating.

“I don’t test but stay home when I’m sick or wear a mask if I’m leaving the house," SecurityFit5830 wrote. "I think if you treat all colds like COVID it’s less important to test.”

“Nope,” VictorNewman91 added. “I would just treat COVID, the flu and a cold the same and stay home, if possible. Don't need a test to tell me which it is.”

"No point anymore given the world has moved on," FinitePrimus wrote. "Even the workplace really doesn't care if you have COVID or anything else."

User chewwydraper lamented people's lack of choice in the matter, replying to another commenter who suggested some think it's "okay" to spread non-COVID illnesses like flus and colds: "With no paid sick days, missing work can mean rent doesn't get paid unfortunately. It's not that they think it's okay, it's just they don't have much options."