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COVID-19 testing can be hard to find. So what should you do if you have symptoms?

WATCH: How to properly use a COVID-19 rapid antigen test

Ottawa’s COVID-19 testing taskforce announced Tuesday that they’ve paused walk-in COVID-19 tests, keeping PCR tests available for “essential workers who require an urgent COVID-19 test.”

It’s not just the nation’s capital either. In Montreal, the wait time for a PCR test appointment can reportedly be up to 10 days, depending on where you live.

London, Ont. residents are struggling to get themselves COVID-19 tested too, and a number of COVID-19 testing sites in the Vancouver Coastal Health Region aren’t able to provide an estimated wait time for walk-ins.

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On top of all that, rapid tests have become one of the country’s hottest commodities — with Canadians in some regions waiting hours in the bitter cold only to be turned away without a rapid antigen test in hand.

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“People cannot get PCR tests. The rapid tests are hard to find as well,” said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

“We’re probably rationing PCR tests to a large extent, by which I mean reserving them for healthcare workers or people who need them for clinical diagnostic purposes.”

Check for Omicron symptoms

So if you can’t get your hand on a test, what should you do? Here’s what we know.

The first thing you should consider is whether you actually have symptoms of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, or any other strain of COVID-19, according to infectious disease specialists.

“What do we do when we can’t get a test anymore? The answer is you rely upon the individual citizen to self-diagnose with symptoms,” said Deonandan.

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Those symptoms can mirror the symptoms of a common cold or the flu, according to infectious disease specialist Dr. Gerald Evans, who says his team has been “carefully tracking the kinds of signs and symptoms that happen in people who are getting Omicron.”

“We’ve got the typical symptoms of a head cold nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat,” Evans said.

On top of that, he said, there’s been “an increase” in the number of people with a “new or worsening cough and headache.”

Those symptoms, Evans acknowledged, are “kind of nonspecific.”

“You may actually see them with a whole host of things, including just regular influenza,” he added.

According to the government of Canada, these are the most commonly reported COVID-19 symptoms, Omicron or otherwise:

  • new or worsening cough
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • temperature equal to or more than 38°C
  • feeling feverish
  • chills
  • fatigue or weakness
  • muscle or body aches
  • new loss of smell or taste
  • headache
  • abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting
  • feeling very unwell

What to do if you have COVID-19 symptoms

Normally, the next step after identifying COVID-19 symptoms would be to get tested as soon as you can, provided that’s what local public health guidelines recommend. But some Canadians might find it difficult to actually book a PCR testing appointment or find a rapid antigen test, experts have warned.

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In the meantime, they say you should act as if you know for sure you have COVID-19.

“If you’ve got symptoms, we assume that you’ve got the disease and we ask you to stay home and isolate until the symptoms abate,” Deonandan said.

“If you’ve got rapid tests, we can use those as well.”

Click to play video: 'People without symptoms asked not to line-up at COVID-19 testing sites'
People without symptoms asked not to line-up at COVID-19 testing sites

Different jurisdictions across the country might have differing public health guidelines when it comes to isolation, but generally they tell you to isolate for 10 to 14 days after the onset of symptoms. Evans added that you might want to try to isolate yourself within your home, provided you live with others.

Make sure you keep an eye on your symptoms, too, in case they worsen.

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“You may need to reach out and go for a visit to an urgent care clinic, perhaps, or an emergency department, if that gets very severe,” Evans said.

“The things that would cause some concern and might lead to seeking out more care would be trouble with your breathing, or if you’re really suffering from a very prolonged fever and those kinds of aches and pains that come along with it.”

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If you have COVID-19 symptoms, you’ll want to avoid any holiday gatherings, Evans added, and it might not be a bad idea to add some screening measures to your checklist before you bring people together.

“I think a little bit of active screening is not a bad idea, given what’s happening right now,” he said.

“If you’re gathering together, you should be gathering with people who you’re well-acquainted with…you certainly don’t want anyone at your gathering who’s sniffling and sneezing and got all the rest of your guests very worried about what’s happening.”

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