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With fall season in full swing, Health Canada is reporting an increase in COVID-19 cases across the country.
In its latest update on Sept. 26, Health Canada said the national percentage of positive cases has been steadily increasing since early July, with current weekly percent positivity at 16.6 per cent.
The number of hospitalizations has also increased nationally from Sept. 13 to 19.
While the country no longer has testing or masking mandates in place like it used to, Yahoo Canada heard from an infectious diseases specialist there are still protocols Canadians should follow to protect themselves and others from the virus.
Read on for everything you need to know.
Should people get the new COVID-19 vaccine?
On Sept. 12, Health Canada approved an updated vaccine from Moderna that targets a SARS-CoV-2 Omicron subvariant. The federal agency maintains vaccination is still "one of the most effective ways to protect ourselves against COVID-19."
Yahoo Canada reported the new jab was "greenlit for Canadians aged six months and above as the world enters its fourth COVID-19 pandemic autumn, and health officials sound the alarm on the rise of new variants — including XBB 1.5, which has become prevalent in 2023."
Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious diseases specialist at McGill University Health Centre, explained the new vaccine formula "produces antibodies that neutralize a lot of variants within the XBB lineage."
"But it won't protect people from necessarily getting infected," he added.
However, it might prevent severe illness and hospitalization. "That is what we anticipate will be the utility of the current booster dose," Vinh said.
According to him, people who are at increased risk of getting severe illness from COVID-19 should "definitely" get the new shot. This includes the elderly, the immunocompromised and pregnant people.
"We also think that people who live in congregate settings… like in long-term care homes, foster care homes, homeless people in shelters, or inmates who are incarcerated… definitely should get it," said Vinh.
Current federal recommendations include a dose of the new formulation of the vaccine for people in the authorized age groups if it's been at least six months since receiving their last dose. Roll-out is expected to begin in October.
But, Vinh added the current federal recommendations are broad, and it's very possible that the provinces may tailor the recommendations to suit their needs," said Vinh.
Mask or no mask?
Masking is one of the key measures recommended by the Public Health Agency of Canada, said Vinh.
"The mask does two things: it prevents you from inhaling the virus and it prevents you from spreading it," he explained.
If someone is in a crowded area, Vinh said they should consider putting on a mask this fall.
That's especially true if they know a space is not well ventilated or if they're in an area where there's sick people, like a hospital.
The mask does two things: it prevents you from inhaling the virus and it prevents you from spreading it.Dr. Donald Vinh
"The other time to wear a mask is also if you've recovered from COVID," the doctor said.
He explained even if a person who has COVID recovers in two days, they may still be contagious. "You are contagious until your rapid tests turn negative and therefore you should wear a mask, especially if you're going to be around other people."
Is physical distancing still a thing?
"Social distancing has always been a thing," according to Vinh. "That's just a general rule because, let's face it, I don't want somebody in my space – COVID or not."
He said people in Canada don't necessarily live in overcrowded areas like some do it New York or Tokyo, for example, so it can be much easier to maintain a recommended two-metre distance.
According to the government, social distancing is "proven to be one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of illness during an outbreak."
The government also recommended, along with social distancing, that people wash their hands for at least 20 seconds and avoid touching their face.
"Cough or sneeze into the bend of your arm," the website pointed out. "(And) avoid touching surfaces people touch often."
Should people self-isolate if they test positive or have symptoms?
Vinh recommends a person with symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue and headache, should isolate at home. However, it is not mandatory.
"Even if you just have symptoms in general that aren't COVID-related, you should be isolating… because there's a strong possibility that you're contagious," said Vinh. Isolation is recommended until the symptoms go away, he added.
He said it's not realistic for people to isolate themselves for 10 days or more, he recommends to stay home and recuperate for a at least three days.
"Most of the time it's somewhere around five to seven days, depending on the individual person, how quickly they recuperate, and of course if they have any underlying medical conditions," Vinh explained.
Public Health continues to recommend staying at home when experiencing symptoms of illness, and added at-home rapid tests for COVID-19 are still a good way to "identify quickly" whether it's the virus.
In short, all measures that were once mandatory or strongly recommended — vaccination, masking, isolation and rapid-testing — are still considered to be best practices.