December 4, 2023

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With flu season on the horizon, we answer your COVID-19 questions

After 3½ years of COVID-19, many Canadians have learned how to make decisions around living with the virus. But as Canada heads into another cold and flu season, many still have questions about what they’re supposed to do if they start to feel unwell.

Here are answers to some common questions.

What is the updated vaccine?

Health Canada approved an updated COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday in hopes of boosting the population’s protection against the latest strains of the virus ahead of the fall and winter season.

The new Moderna vaccine, which targets the Omicron XBB.1.5 variant, can be given to anyone six months of age or older. People can get the shot whether or not they were previously vaccinated. It is expected to hit the market by early October.

Health Canada is also reviewing new vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Novavax on a “priority basis.” Drugmakers have been updating their vaccines to better match newer strains of the virus, including the Omicron subvariants that are currently circulating.

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam previously told CBC News these latest shots are more closely tailored to current variants, which should allow them to better ward off infections this season.

Why isn’t the updated COVID-19 vaccine called a booster? 

Why isn’t the updated COVID-19 vaccine called a booster?

Featured VideoDr. Supriya Sharma, chief medical adviser at Health Canada, explains the newly approved COVID-19 shot.

Should I be testing for COVID-19 if I feel sick?

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security and an infectious disease physician, said it’s important for people who feel sick to take a COVID-19 test to find out which bug they’re fighting. Testing will be particularly important during the coming influenza season, because COVID-19 symptoms can look a lot like the flu.

“Being able to distinguish whether you have COVID or whether you have the flu may have implications for treatments that you get,” he said.

“If you have any high-risk conditions, it’s important to know that you have COVID so you can talk to your doctor and get a prescription for Paxlovid as soon as possible.” 

A nurse wearing a blue medical face mask pushes a needle into a young woman's upper arm.
Health Canada has approved a new COVID-19 vaccine that targets the Omicron XBB.1.5 variant. Anyone can get the shot whether or not they were previously vaccinated. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Health Canada also recommends testing for COVID-19 if you’re at a higher risk of developing a severe case, like if you have other health conditions. Testing can also help you make decisions around what to do next — for instance, when you should return to work or schedule a booster dose.

If you don’t test but still feel unwell, you should also stay home and away from others until your fever breaks and you feel healthy enough to get back to your regular activities, according to Health Canada.

I tested positive. What do I do?

People who test positive for COVID-19 should keep away from others, including those in their own home, and check with their local public health authority for any requirements around self-isolation.

If your symptoms get worse, Health Canada recommends calling your health-care provider if you have one. If it becomes an emergency, call 911.

The rapid tests I have at home are expired. Are they still accurate?

Health Canada has extended the shelf life of many rapid tests so the new expiry date is 24 months from the manufacturing date

If you have these tests at home, add two years to the manufacture date on the package to confirm the revised expiry date and use as directed.

Adalja said tests that have truly expired might return a false negative, but a positive result should be considered accurate.

“If you’re positive on an expired test, it’s a true positive,” he said. “If you’re negative on an expired test that has not had a shelf life extension, you may need to get a non-expired test or get more formal testing.”

Health Canada has information on where to find take-home rapid tests, depending on your province or territory.

How accurate are the tests at detecting new variants?

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor in community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, said at-home tests should work on new strains of COVID-19 because they detect fundamental proteins in the virus that don’t change much even when the virus mutates.

He said you’re more likely to get a false negative for a number of reasons — like making a mistake using the test or testing too early in your illness — but if you get a positive result, “you can be sure that you have COVID.”

Muhajarine also cautioned that take-home tests are intended to be for screening, meaning they’re not as effective as diagnostic tests.

“It’s not 100 per cent accurate but it’s better to do the testing than not,” he said.

How long should I wait to get a booster after an infection?

At this stage, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to deciding when it’s best to get a new dose of the vaccine, but experts say most Canadians can consider getting another shot six months or so after their last vaccination or infection. 

People who have a higher risk of serious illness — like those who are older, pregnant, immunocompromised or living with another health condition — should talk to their health-care provider if they’d like to get another dose sooner.

“That’s where we want to see high levels of uptake of the vaccine because when you look at who is being hospitalized, who’s dying from COVID today, it’s individuals in an identified risk group or individuals above the age of 65,” Adalja said.

Experts have also noted the majority of the population has already developed longer-lasting protection against serious illness after multiple rounds of vaccination, infection or both — even without that extra dose.

WATCH | Why federal health officials wore masks at their latest COVID-19 briefing: 

Why federal health officials wore masks at their latest COVID-19 briefing

Featured VideoSeveral federal health officials wore masks at their Tuesday technical briefing on updated COVID-19 vaccines. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam explains why they’ve brought them back.