OTTAWA — Nearly two years into the pandemic, most people know what to do when they feel ill to stop the spread of COVID-19. The highly transmissible new variant has thrown some of the old rules for a loop, however.
Omicron appears to spread faster and more easily than its predecessors, even among the vaccinated.
Here's what you need to know if you feel like you might have COVID-19 in the age of Omicron.
Of course, public health advice is changing rapidly and varies from place to place. When in doubt, call your local public health unit.
I tested positive on a rapid test. What do I do?
The advice varies a bit based on where you live and how overwhelmed test centres are in your area.
Rapid tests are less accurate than their molecular counterparts, so best practice is to confirm the result with a test administered by your local public health unit. But even if you can't get one, you need to protect those around you, said Cynthia Carr, founder and epidemiologist with EPI Research in Winnipeg.
"You still need to go for the gold standard PCR testing," Carr said in an interview Monday.
"If you can't get into a testing centre, don't just continue as normal. Do everything else that you can to stay safe and isolated from others until you can find a testing centre for that confirmation through a PCR test."
In other words, if you can't get in to get a test, consider yourself COVID-positive and isolate until a test becomes available or your isolation period has ended.
You should also consider taking another rapid test to help verify the first one, said Dr. Dalia Hasan, the founder of COVID Test Finders, a group that advocates for the availability of rapid tests.
I don't have a rapid test, but I do have symptoms. What should I do?
Again, it depends on where you live and whether tests are available.
A study from the United Kingdom shows the most common symptoms associated with the Omicron variant are the same as the common cold: runny nose, headache, sneezing and sore throat.
"It is really hard for people to know the difference, which is why it is so important to get tested," Carr said.
Ideally, you should book a molecular COVID-19 test with your local public health unit. But that's harder to do in some areas than others.
In Ottawa for example, where test centres are overwhelmed, people have been told to assume the worst until they can get in.
"If you have symptoms, you should assume you have COVID-19 and self-isolate," Ottawa's chief public health officer Dr. Vera Etches said in a statement Friday.
Do I need to inform anyone I have COVID-19 if I can't get a molecular test?
If you get tested by public health, the authorities will already be aware of your positive case. If you can't get in, you can still give them a call to let them know, said Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association.
You should tell your doctor.
"It's always good for your doctor to know what's going on so that they can advise you," Smart said.
"The risk to the individual may vary based on their vaccination status, based on their underlying health conditions, based on people in their family. So those sort of individual decisions are best made with your health provider."
It's also important to get reach out to anyone you've recently been in close contact with so they can take precautions as well.
The sick person's employer or school should also be in the loop.
What does it mean to isolate?
It means staying home, and staying away from other people. That includes the people you live with, Carr said.
"If you're with other people within the household, that's not a safe situation," she said. Her warning applies even to vaccinated family members.
"You might be living in a household with others who are fully vaccinated, some of whom may have had the booster as well. That is excellent in terms of safety against severe disease, but the virus can still be spread so you should still be doing everything you can to be in a separate room."
People who are isolating should also use another bathroom, if possible, she said.
If it's not possible to be in a separate room from the people you live with, at least try to stay two metres apart from other people and wear a mask.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said you should imagine the virus like a cloud of smoke around the infected person. The closer you are to them, the more dense the smoke, the more likely you are to be infected.
When can I go out again?
That will depend on a few factors, like whether you're fully vaccinated and whether you were tested by public health.
Your local public health unit should be able to offer you the best advice for your situation.
The World Health Organization's general rule is to isolate for 10 days after the onset of symptoms or a positive rapid test, and another three days after the symptoms have cleared up.
The same goes if you're a close contact of a COVID-19 case but have not been tested yourself.
I'm a close contact of a confirmed or suspected COVID case. Now what?
Omicron has upped the ante in terms of how concerned close contacts need to be. Even close contacts of a close contact may want to take extra precautions, Carr said.
"The more infectious a virus is, the more contacts and then contacts of contacts there will be," she said.
Contacts of a suspected or confirmed case should get tested if at all possible.
Close contacts should isolate just as strictly as those who are suspected as having COVID-19, she said.
How do I know if I have Omicron?
Even if your COVID-19 infection has been confirmed by a molecular test, you'll probably never know what strain of the virus you have.
The good news is, the advice for treatment and isolation are the same for everyone.
What are my options for treatment?
Asymptomatic cases caught by rapid tests don't require treatment. Just stay isolated to make sure you don't make someone else sick.
Mild cases can be treated the way you would treat any common cold or flu.
"Making sure you're in touch with your health-care providers, so they can be … helping you monitor your symptoms, letting you know what to watch out for, is always a good idea," Smart said.
People should look out for breathing issues first and foremost, she said. Gastrointestinal symptoms can also lead to dehydration, she warned.
Call 911 if you have significant difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, confusion or difficulty waking up.
For now, most treatments are only available at the hospital.
Canada has ordered oral antiviral treatments for COVID-19 patients that can be taken at home to prevent severe disease, but the drugs have not yet been approved by Health Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2021.
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press