It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Canada as compared to previous years when COVID-19 lockdowns limited or cancelled quality in-person time with loved ones. However, with viruses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and flu thrown in the mix with COVID, health experts are urging Canadians to take protective measures amidst the festivities.
“I really hope everyone enjoys a wonderful and relaxing holiday season, but we should also be mindful that there are lots of viruses circulating and there are steps that we can take to reduce the risk of infection,” Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, told Global News on Saturday.
Earlier this month, the Pan American Health Organization said on its website that all of the Americas, including Canada, are experiencing a “triple threat” of respiratory illnesses caused by COVID-19, RSV, and influenza that should have all countries on “alert.”
This wave of illness due to COVID-19, RSV and influenza is causing significant strain on hospitals across Canada, as shown by the recent weekly influenza report, especially pediatric emergency departments, some of which have been forced to cancel non-urgent surgeries.
Health experts and public health officials are continually urging Canadians to stay up to date with their vaccinations and putting on masks as required.
“People are going to be travelling over the course of the holiday season… and I think it’s totally reasonable to put on a mask if you’re on a plane or a bus or in an indoor public setting to reduce your risk of getting infected and, of course, to reduce your risk of transmitting infections to others,” said Bogoch.
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam is also urging Canadians to take key protective measures like frequent hand-washing, wearing a well-fitted face mask, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home if feeling unwell.
“As long as influenza RSV, COVID, and other respiratory viruses continue to co-circulate at a high level, there is an increased likelihood that we will encounter one or more of these viruses as we interact with others in schools, workplaces and social settings, especially indoors,” Dr. Tam said while addressing reporters during a public health update on Friday.
“And if masks are not being worn, for the time being, it makes sense to dial up a vaccine plus practices to increase our level of protection, particularly in light of our extremely stretched health systems,” she added.
COVID-19 restrictions like mandatory mask-wearing indoors and physical distancing are virtually non-existent in Canada. Over the past year as COVID-19 levels eased, governments lifted their mandates and shifted messaging to encourage people to keep up with protections.
While none of the provincial chief medical health officers have taken the step of reinstating mandates amid the continued spread of viruses, a number of them encourage masking indoors.
Bogoch says it’s important to be up to date on vaccinations for influenza and COVID-19 as “it could help mitigate the severity of symptoms.” As well as being mindful of the people you are interacting with during the holiday season, he added.
“Some people might be at greater risk for severe outcomes if they do get infected with COVID or flu or RSV,” Bogoch said.
He explains that the viruses like the flu can impact everyone, but it’s more likely to bring the youngest, oldest, and people with underlying medical conditions into the hospital.
“Certainly, we are seeing that now…I work in an adult hospital, and we are absolutely seeing cases of influenza in adult populations,” said Bogoch.
In the latest respiratory virus report, PHAC states that influenza and RSV remain “elevated,” with influenza cases reported to be the highest in Canada.
According to the report, influenza activity “is far above expected levels for this time of year and continues to increase (5,876 detections; 19.2 per cent positive)” as of Nov. 19.
So far, the vast majority of flu cases detected and lab-tested this year have been caused by a strain of the influenza A virus known as H3N2. A very small percentage just three per cent to date — was the influenza A strain known as H1N1, according to FluWatch data released weekly by PHAC.
Both of these strains are included in this year’s flu vaccine, which also includes two isolates of influenza B virus, and according to Matthew Miller, director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University, this is both good news and bad news for Canadians.
“The good news is that the vaccine is a good match. The bad news is that H3N2 strains tend to cause more severe infections than H1N1 strains,” Miller told Global News on Wednesday.
Dr. Tam also says the vaccine is a good match against circulating influenza strains. It’s “an important foundation of protection,” she said.
Bogoch agrees. The vaccine is “not perfect,” he said, but it goes a long way to protect Canadians from influenza.
“We’re really thinking more about risk mitigation, not risk elimination,” said Bogoch.
— With files from Teresa Wright, Heidi Lee, and Aaron D’Andrea