Doctors and infectious disease specialists are urging Albertans to look after seniors as Alberta heads into an early influenza season.
As of Friday, four Albertans over the age of 60 have died and 157 have been hospitalized.
The data isn't all that surprising, says University of Calgary infectious disease specialist Craig Jenne, but is still concerning — especially because the flu season has arrived early in Alberta.
"It's also reminding us that we have to look after the most at-risk in our community," he said.
Jenne says Albertans can expect the trend to continue, where the people most at risk of hospitalization and bad outcomes are either the really young or the elderly.
Among the six influenza-related deaths reported in the province so far is a four-year-old child. The death comes at a time when tens of thousands of schoolchildren are at home sick, and pediatric hospitals have been hit by a wave of respiratory illnesses.
Dr. Jia Hu, public health physician and CEO of 19 to Zero, says the impact on kids lately is part of why seniors haven't received as much attention this year.
"Seniors are certainly being affected, and they'll continue to be affected more and more," said Hu.
More effective vaccine formulation for seniors
The single most important thing to do to protect Alberta seniors is to get vaccinated for influenza, says Hu.
It's especially important for younger people to get vaccinated, he says, because the vaccines "do work a bit less well in the elderly population, since their immune systems weaken with age."
Jenne says that's exactly why a different vaccine formulation is being offered for seniors, which is a higher dose and provides better protection than the conventional vaccine.
"It's using the same targets as the conventional vaccine but formulated a little differently to generate a more protective immune response in older individuals," said Jenne.
He says he encourages seniors to skip the flu shots at the pharmacy and instead talk to their primary health-care provider for the special vaccine formulation. It's free for seniors in Alberta.
So far, Alberta is well below its average influenza vaccine rate, says Jenne.
Lessons learned from COVID-19 pandemic
Seniors were among those hit hardest by COVID-19 — especially at Alberta long-term care homes.
There were lessons learned heading into this flu season, including measures to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses, says Scott Wagner, general manager of Mayfair Care Centre in southwest Calgary.
"If anything, it's enhanced," said Wagner. "By having handwashing, continuous masking, social distancing as much as possible, hopefully [the flu] stays out."
He notes that visitors are still allowed at the facility — even during a COVID-19 outbreak — to respect the morale of residents and their families after a tough couple years of the pandemic.
Larry Mathieson, president and CEO of Unison, which includes the Kerby Centre in Calgary, says seniors in the community have been more cautious this flu season.
"There's a much more heightened awareness for seniors, and probably nervousness as well, given what we've been through the last couple of years," said Mathieson.
He says seniors have been getting their flu shots, avoiding busy environments and masking when they're around others.
To keep them safe, Unison has hosted an increased number of presentations and lectures with medical professionals to get information out to the community — including to continue getting their flu shots.
"I think we have to not overreact, but also at the same time, we need to not under-prepare or not undertake precautions."