TORONTO -- As the number of COVID-19 cases increases in Canada, an infectious disease expert explains what to do if you think you have symptoms.

Initial symptoms of the new coronavirus are very similar to the flu or cold and include fever, cough and difficulty breathing, Dr. Lisa Barrett explained to CTV’s Your Morning what patients should do if they suspect they have the illness.

“If you have those symptoms, a fever and a cough, the best thing to do is reach out to your local health authorities across the country… and figure out what the next steps are,” she said.

It is “key”, unless in an emergency, “to not run to your nearest emergency room,” she added.

Dr. Barrett emphasized the importance of patients getting further advice from their provincial health authority on what to do next, “especially if they think they need to be tested or if they want to know more about what to do in terms of self-isolation and social distancing.”

On the advice of local health authorities helplines, presumptive cases may be sent to assessment centres set up near hospitals across the country, Dr. Barrett explained.

“Right now we are really focused in Canada on making sure we have enough tests for people that need them,” she said.

“But not everybody necessarily will need to be tested and that’s why the assessment centres are there to make sure everyone is doing OK from a health perspective, but also to determine who exactly needs one of the tests for coronavirus or other respiratory viruses.”

Most test samples from around the country are sent to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg for final testing, with the exception of Quebec.

Dr. Barrett advised against calling a hospital directly for suspected cases of coronavirus, which could put a drain on health resources. She urged people to take “civic responsibility” and not just show up at an emergency department.

“Calling hospitals directly is going to cause a real stress on our systems and it’s not going to get you the answers you need,” she said.

“On each province’s ministry of health website, public health website or your health authority website there are easy to find numbers that tell you where to call to get the best information at this time for coronavirus.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends that people who feel ill and have to visit a doctor call ahead to tell that they have a respiratory illness.

“If you have travelled abroad and you develop fever, cough or difficulty breathing in the next 14 days, isolate yourself within the home as quickly as possible,” the advice reads.

“Call your health care provider or public health authority.”

The PHAC also has a self-assessment tool for people who think they may have COVID-19.

New rules under the Quarantine Act state that if someone becomes sick while travelling back to Canada, they must inform the flight attendant or a Canadian border services officer.

“Advise a Canada border services agent on arrival in Canada if you believe you were exposed to someone who was sick with COVID-19, even if you do not have symptoms,” the PHAC advises.

“The Canada border services agent will provide instructions for you to follow.”

In Ontario, the Ministry of Health advice there echoes that from the PHAC.

In Quebec, the provincial government has recommended anyone who has returned from abroad or shows signs of the cold or flu, to self-isolate for 14 days.

“Symptoms can be mild (similar to a cold) or more severe (such as those associated with pneumonia and lung or kidney failure),” the government of Quebec wrote.

“In rare cases, the disease can lead to death. Those most at risk of complications are people who are immunocompromised, those with chronic illnesses and the elderly.”

Quebec also highlights “sudden loss of sense of smell and taste without nasal congestion” as a COVID-19 symptom.

In British Columbia, the provincial health authority Healthlink BC also provides answers to common COVID-19 questions.

“If you start having symptoms of COVID-19, you need to isolate yourself from others as quickly as possible,” Healthlink BC writes.

“Immediately call a health care professional, a local public health authority or 8-1-1. Describe your symptoms and travel history. They will provide advice on what you should do.” 

At time of writing there is no vaccine that protects against COVID-19 infection.

Here is a full list of public health authorities to call if you think you may have symptoms of COVID-19.

British Columbia: 811

Alberta: 811

Saskatchewan: 811

Manitoba: 1-888-315-9257

Ontario: 1-866-797-0000

Quebec: 1-877-644-4545.

New Brunswick: 811

Nova Scotia: 811

Prince Edward Island: 811

Newfoundland and Labrador: 811 or 1-888-709-2929

Nunavut: 867-975-5772

Northwest Territories: 911

Yukon: 811