Canada’s top doctor has warned that the country could be headed for its first typical flu season since the pandemic began, even as health systems still grapple with a fourth wave of COVID-19.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr Theresa Tam said on Friday that the flu was “virtually non-existent” in Canada last year, thanks to strict public health measures to protect against COVID-19.
What served as a blessing last fall, leaving already overwhelmed health systems, could now mean Canadians have less immunity against common strains of the flu.
Surveillance data from the Public Health Agency of Canada shows higher-than-expected infection rates for some of Canada’s most common seasonal viruses: respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. and human parainfluenza.
“This year we are anticipating a possible flu resurgence, due to low levels of immunity in the population as a result of low circulation over the last flu season and the easing of some restrictive, community-based public health measures,” Tam said.
Even in non-pandemic times, flu season has been known to bring hospitals to their knees, overcrowded emergency rooms and intensive care units.
Now, with some hospitals across the country already at capacity and staff having been burned for a year and a half in providing pandemic care, an acute flu season could be especially dire.
“This is definitely not the year to wreak influenza havoc,” Tam said.
That’s why public health officials say it will be more important than ever that people get flu shots to avoid complications like pneumonia and keep hospitals from being overloaded.
On 7 October, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization suggested that the flu vaccine be given at any time before or after _ or at the same time as _ the COVID-19 vaccine, so postponement of any shots There’s no reason to.
It’s too early to say how severe flu season may be, but pediatric hospitals are already feeling its side effects.
The emergency room at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario is overcrowded to the level the hospital normally sees at the peak of flu season.
Tammy DeGiovanni, the hospital’s senior vice president of clinical services and chief nurse executive, said the increase has been driven partly by routine injuries, but also by a “potpourri” of viruses, including RSV.
Due to COVID-19, she said, the CEO had to cancel the surgery and add to the already long backlog. Flu cases will only exacerbate that problem and lead to longer waits for non-urgent care.
“What we worry about is our competence and the ability of the staff,” DeGiovanni said in an interview on Friday. “What we don’t try to do, but we’ve been forced to do, are some cancellations.”
A similar situation is also prevailing in other children’s hospitals, he added.
Tam said the federal government is strengthening health care systems throughout the pandemic by ensuring emergency assistance from the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Red Cross, but the solution is not sustainable.
“Health care capacity can’t be generated overnight, and especially things like ICU capacity,” Tam said.
“People need to do everything possible to reduce both COVID and other respiratory viruses to keep our systems running.”
Tam’s deputy, Dr Howard Njoo, said one of the silver linings of the pandemic could be the spread of flu prevention measures, such as hand hygiene stations and wearing masks.
“Hopefully this type of behavior will last for a long time … becoming part of normal healthy behavior to protect yourself from other respiratory infections, including COVID-19 and the annual flu in the future.”
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