After two years of record-low influenza rates, experts warn the flu is likely to be back in full swing this season.
This is due to a general lifting of pandemic health measures such as required masking, size restrictions and travel restrictions, says Greater Victoria Pharmacist Kim Myers.
“It definitely increases the spread of germs and colds.”
Health Canada estimates that in a year without a pandemic, about 12,200 Canadians will be hospitalized with the flu or flu-like symptoms. It’s difficult to get an exact figure because only nine provinces and territories in the country report hospital admissions to FluWatch, the national flu surveillance system.
Flu hospitalizations fell during the pandemic
Of those that do — Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Alberta, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan — 5,176 flu-related hospitalizations were reported during the 2017-2018 season and 3,657 were reported in 2018-2019.
There were 2,493 hospitalizations during the 2019-2020 season, half of which occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. That number went to zero in 2020-2021, again without Ontario, Quebec, BC or Nunavut.
Myers says it’s hard to say if this year’s flu season will be as bad as the pre-pandemic years, but that it will almost certainly be worse than it has been in the last year or two. She says the awareness the pandemic has raised about the importance of vaccines makes her hopeful that more people will get the flu shot this year. She says people who come to her pharmacy are already asking when shots will be available.
Possible correlation between COVID-19 and influenza vaccine uptake
BC saw a small spike in influenza vaccine uptake in the first year of the pandemic. In 2018, 34.6 percent of people got the shot, followed by 37.2 percent in 2019 and then 42.1 percent in 2020, according to Statistics Canada. Prices for 2021 are not yet available.
A 2021 research paper published in the medical journal Vaccine found that the primary indicator of whether Canadians will receive a vaccine is whether they have been previously vaccinated, suggesting those who received the COVID vaccine , are now more likely to get the influenza vaccine too.
Over 87 percent of British Columbia residents have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine as of September 26.
Beginning in early October, BC residents will have the opportunity to receive COVID vaccine boosters and flu shots at the same time. The province says this will give it the capacity to vaccinate about 250,000 people a week.
Who is most affected?
For the majority of people, the flu means illness for up to a week, but for young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, the virus can make it significantly more difficult for them to fight off infection. According to Health Canada, there are 3,500 flu-related deaths each year, although that number is based on a mathematical estimate rather than actual annual data.
Myers says the best people can do to stop the spread of the virus and protect those most vulnerable is to follow many of the same precautions that apply to COVID-19: get vaccinated, get your hands on wash, wear a mask, stay home when sick and minimize the number of crowded public outings.
“It’s not just for themselves, it’s trying to do it for those around them who are vulnerable and for those who can’t get vaccines. It’s important that we try to do this to protect them,” Myers said.
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