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COVID-19 versus common cold symptoms and where Maine stands with omicron surge

NEWS CENTER Maine spoke with doctors from MaineHealth and Northern Light Health about COVID-19 versus common cold symptoms and the state of the omicron variant.

MAINE, USA — If you didn't already know someone who got sick with COVID-19, it's likely that now you do. The omicron variant is spreading quickly across Maine and the country, but its milder nature (especially for people who are vaccinated) can make it difficult to tell if you actually have COVID-19 or just a common cold. 

Dr. Dora Mills with MaineHealth said in some cases, there will be noticeable differences between symptoms. People who get COVID-19 might experience a sense of fatigue or a loss of taste or smell. With the omicron variant, though, those symptoms are not always present, so just having a cough (usually a dry one) or a sore throat means you could be positive. 

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Mills said the only way to know for sure if you're sick with COVID-19 is to get tested. If you have any kind of symptoms, or if you know you've been exposed to COVID-19, Mills said you should assume you have it and act accordingly to keep others safe. You should also try to get tested as soon as possible.

Dr. Ducker with Northern Light Health said he believes testing is key, and until you do that, it's best to be cautious. He said with a promise of federal funding, he's confident more at-home testing kits will become available. There are also other options, like the new state-run testing clinic at the Augusta Armory and services through health care providers. 

"[People] should treat themselves as if they have COVID-19 until it's excluded so that they're not putting their friends, colleagues, family, loved ones at risk," said Ducker, noting that some people are immunocompromised. 

"If you do test positive and you have symptoms, there's no reason to go and get another test," said Mills. "Our testing centers are really pretty overwhelmed right now, and a positive test for COVID-19, you can really take that to the bank."

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Per updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if you test positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms (regardless of vaccination status), you should stay at home for five days and isolate yourself from others in your home. If you're around others in your home, you should wear a mask. After five days, you can end isolation once you have been naturally fever-free for 24 hours, but you should still wear a mask for 10 days. If you were seriously sick, you should isolate for at least 10 days. Mills said if you test negative after five days, you're much less likely to be infectious to others. 

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Ducker and Mills said Maine is still in the early stages of the omicron variant surge. Dr. Mills said this surge will likely be significant since the variant is so contagious, but it could be as short as four weeks. Ducker said he expects the surge will last between six and eight weeks. That means hospitals will likely be overwhelmed during the next couple of weeks since a rise in case numbers means a rise in hospitalization numbers. That has already been made apparent in Maine, with our state hitting a new record high number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Monday.

Ducker said it's still unclear in South Africa and Europe whether the omicron surge has helped to establish herd immunity, but he said more people getting sick combined with more people getting vaccinated will make it more difficult for new strains of the virus to appear. Mills said she hopes that after the omicron surge, the pandemic will become endemic, meaning that while the virus will never completely be eradicated, there may be less dramatic surges because of a "great wall of vaccination".  

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Ducker and Mills said the good news is we also now have a better grasp of what to do when it comes to dealing with variants.

"We know how to endure these surges," Mills said. "We're building up a lot of the capacity to get through these surges and the knowledge of knowing how to dial-up on not just vaccinations and boosting shots, but also masking and ventilation and testing and distancing."

"We would need to be very vigilant about ... doing all of the things that we've become accustomed to doing — isolating with symptoms, hand-washing, social-distancing, and all of that," Ducker said.

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