It’s the dreaded text message none of us wants to receive: “You have tested positive for COVID-19.”
What to do now?
Testing positive can be a stressful and anxiety-inducing experience, and it can be hard to know what to do next.
TND spoke to University of Sydney epidemiologist Professor Alexandra Martiniuk to find out.
Spread the word
The first important step following a positive PCR or rapid antigen test is to notify others.
“Some people are not telling each other [once they test positive]. It seems obvious, but it’s really important,” said Professor Martiniuk.
You should inform all your household contacts, people you have come in contact with in previous days, and those you may have seen in passing or shared spaces with, such as neighbours in your apartment block.
In Victoria, you must now report your positive rapid antigen test to the Department of Health.
From Monday, January 10, people who return a positive rapid antigen test in NSW must self-isolate, alert their close contacts and register their positive result with the Service NSW app or website (coming soon).
Please check your state’s coronavirus resources for more information (available at the end of this article).
If you don’t live alone, your next step should be isolating yourself from the rest of your household, and wearing your mask as frequently as you can.
If possible, try to isolate in a room separate from the rest of the household.
You should stay in your room away from others as much as you can to minimise contact and subsequent exposure.
All individuals in a household with a COVID-positive person should wear masks around the home, said Professor Martiniuk.
“Wear a mask. Even if you’re in a house with your mum and dad, other kids or flatmates, whatever your circumstances might be, wear a mask,” she said.
“That applies to everyone – the sick person and the healthy people. That will help everybody.”
It’s also best to allocate yourself a separate bathroom if one is available.
If this isn’t possible, there is a strategy you and others can use to mitigate the spread of the virus.
“If you’re sharing a bathroom or another shared space, it’s best to let the sick person go in wearing a mask, and other people would go in as long after as they can possibly wait,” said Professor Martiniuk.
“If they can wait an hour after the infected person had to use the bathroom, then all the better.”
The infected person should also avoid retrieving food for themselves.
“[Other members of the household] can make some food and, while wearing a mask, knock on the door and leave it outside for the sick person,” she said.
“Once the healthy person can walk away, then the person who’s infectious wears a mask, opens the door, picks up the food and stays in their room for as long as possible.”
‘It’s not all doom and gloom’
Being extra cautious during your isolation isn’t a wasted effort.
In fact, if you test positive for COVID, it is possible to keep the rest of your household COVID-free.
“People are saying ‘We’re all gonna get it in the household, why am I going to go through all this trouble sitting in my room?'” said Professor Martiniuk.
“The research is showing not everyone in a household necessarily gets Omicron or Delta.
“Between 30 and 90 per cent of the household will get COVID if there’s someone in the household living with COVID.”
The likelihood that the rest of the household will also catch COVID depends on a number of factors including isolation efforts, vaccination status and the health of the people in the household.
“Some households will have someone with a COVID case, and no one else gets it, so it is worth trying to isolate as best as possible to try to stop others from getting it.”
Ventilation is key
Now that you’ve cornered off a part of the house to isolate in, it’s important to maximise airflow.
“Ventilation is really, really important, and by that we mean fresh air,” said Professor Martiniuk.
To do that, all it takes is opening a couple of doors and windows, which should be opened as wide as possible during the day and night.
Be mindful that this method of ventilation works best if you have variation. For example, having a door open at the front of the house and the back of the house will work better than having two doors open at the front of the house.
“If you’ve got windows open upstairs, and doors open downstairs, that can be really useful,” said Professor Martiniuk.
“Or if you live in a tiny apartment, having the little bathroom window open and a big window open opposite to that.”
During hot weather, it’s best to shade your windows while they’re open to lower the temperature in the airway while also keeping ventilation going.
Watch your symptoms
During isolation COVID-positive people, their household contacts and close contacts should all be closely monitoring their symptoms.
However, testing positive or having mild symptoms does not necessarily mean you need to call your GP or the emergency department.
“There is a misconception that when someone tests positive they need to call their GP, and that’s not true,” Professor Martiniuk said. “That’s not going to help GPs help those who need it.”
Professor Martiniuk said the majority of people with Omicron report having very mild symptoms, such as a headache and a stuffy nose.
“They should basically do nothing but monitor themselves and help others if they’re in a household that’s sick,” she said.
“If someone has very mild symptoms, they can monitor themselves at home, take some Panadol – and that’s a large number of people.”
However, there are more severe symptoms to keep an eye out for.
“Then there’s the people who have worsening symptoms. They’ve got a bad cough, they’ve had a fever for a long time, [so] certainly they should reach out to their GP for advice via Telehealth or phone consult,” she said.
“Save the emergency department for emergencies … If you think it’s an emergency, it is, and you can get yourself to the emergency department.”
When to raise the alarm
There are some very clear signs that would indicate you need to seek care from your GP or go to the emergency room.
More severe symptoms include:
- Loss of consciousness (unable to be woken)
- Severe chest pains
- High fever (for more than three days).
Professor Martiniuk advised that symptoms may differ for young children, some of which may not be a cause for alarm.
More common symptoms for children include:
- Sharp tummy pains
- Leg pain
“People should be aware those are known symptoms. For many children, it is passing quite quickly,” she said.
“If you think the stomach pain is extremely severe and is going for a long time, they may need to seek emergency care.”
In the case of a child vomiting, it is important to keep their fluids up.
“Vomiting also really depends on the age. A very young child vomiting, they can get very dehydrated very quickly, so you have to look for ‘floppiness’ of a young child.”
Professor Martiniuk encouraged COVID-positive people to use the healthdirect symptom checker or contact the COVID hotline for more information on what to do depending on your symptoms or those of someone in your household.
Mild COVID symptoms such as headaches and fever are easily treatable by paracetamol or ibuprofen.
It’s also important to ensure you are getting fluid.
If you feel dehydrated, try taking electrolytes such as Gatorade or Hydralyte.
Other than that, Professor Martiniuk said no other medication is needed to recover.
“We don’t want people taking a lot of over-the-counter medicine or unapproved medicine and thereby harming themselves with other methods,” she said.
Many people with COVID can lose their appetite.
Professor Martiniuk said as long as people are drinking plenty of fluids and regularly using the bathroom, it is okay to go a couple days without solid food if needed.
“As long as they’re drinking and their eating comes back a short time after that, that’s okay,” she said.
It can also be helpful to incorporate a bit of sunlight into your daily routine.
Whether it be opening up the blinds or heading out into an isolated area in your house away from other people to catch some rays, sunlight can help with your sleep-wake cycle.
Sitting in a dark room all day can make it difficult to sleep at night, said Professor Martiniuk.
“Seeing the sun can be helpful to create a bit of a pattern in the day and can also help with the sleep-wake cycle.”
Time to clean up
Once your seven days of isolation are complete, it’s time to clean up to make sure your home is once again a COVID-safe environment.
You should wash your sheets, especially if they have vomit or any other kinds of secretions on them. These chores should be ideally tackled while wearing a mask and gloves.
You must wash your hands thoroughly after handling potentially contaminated items. Other surfaces can be washed with soap and warm water or sanitising materials. Professor Martiniuk stressed this as an important precaution to minimise the risk of anyone else in the household picking up the virus.
“If half the household got COVID, washing surfaces with soap and warm water or, if you’ve got sanitising or chlorine sorts of materials that can be useful,” she advised.
However, there’s no need for overkill.
“I read some people saying you need to throw out all the kids’ stuffed animals and buy a new mattress, buy a new couch, that’s not needed. There’s no evidence to show that’s a good idea,” Professor Martiniuk said
Prepare in advance
If you haven’t yet tested positive for COVID-19, now might be a good time to start preparing.
There’s no need for doomsday prepping, but Professor Martiniuk said it is a good idea to keep some general supplies on hand in the case you head into isolation.
Having approximately enough food for seven days to two weeks can be helpful. Items such as long-life milk, a loaf of bread in the freezer and meal staples such as rice are good to have handy.
It’s also a good idea to have your medicine cupboard stocked up in advance, she said.
“Keep your medications ready. That includes having things like paracetamol and ibuprofen on hand for all ages. Having some Gatorade or Hydralyte can be useful.”
In the event that the adults of the house fall sick, Professor Martiniuk suggested having some easy-to-make meals at the ready, “because sometimes the adults get sick and … the kids are all eating up a storm, having some food that might be easy to prepare would make a difference.”
Always be ready
Although lockdowns are behind us and we’re free to embark on holidays once more, Professor Martiniuk advised to consider your COVID-positive plan before you leave home.
“Think about what you will do if you get sick while you’re travelling,” she said.
“When you’re travelling, it’s quite different. You don’t have a stock of Panadol and you’re not expecting to stay in your accommodation to isolate for seven days.
“People really need to think a little about their plan if they’re out of their home, how they’re going to manage should they test positive and get very sick.”