It's an 'atypical' year for influenza as cases climb in Windsor-Essex, says top doctor

Acting medical officer of health of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, is concerned about influenza rates in the region. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)
Acting medical officer of health of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, is concerned about influenza rates in the region. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)

Windsor-Essex's top doctor is concerned about the rising rates of influenza in the region — especially among young people — as respiratory illness dominates hospitals locally and across Ontario.

Acting medical officer of health, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, says this flu season has been "atypical," with cases presenting in May, June and July — a season when the virus is typically not active.

"We've had cases of influenza every month since March of 2022. Normally, in a normal influenza season, there's a hiatus in the summer where we don't see cases," Nesathurai said. "We're seeing about 50 cases a week at the current time and that is significant."

The confirmed cases are only a fraction of the number of people with flu in the community, as not everyone is tested for influenza, says Nesathurai.

He's also concerned with the number of young people impacted by flu.

"About one-third of the people under the age of 18 that present to the emergency department are presenting with respiratory or influenza-like symptoms, and that suggests the burden of disease among young people is something that's very problematic," he said.

Windsor-Essex County Health Unit
Windsor-Essex County Health Unit

The number of confirmed flu cases in Windsor-Essex has climbed in recent weeks. There were 56 reported cases for the week of Nov. 27 to Dec. 3, and 62 cases reported the week before, according to the latest data from the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.

Between COVID-19, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the doctor says the region can expect "a challenging few weeks moving forward."

On Thursday, Windsor Regional Hospital CEO David Musyj said in a board meeting that the hospital is anticipating a rise in COVID-19 after the holidays and is concerned about capacity.

It's something Nesathurai is worried for too.

"Doctors are always reluctant to predict the future — it's just the nature of our training — but we are honest about it, and I am very concerned about the burden of illness moving forward in the community overall," said Nesathurai.

He said he wants people to enjoy the holidays, but hopes they will follow the same public health advice that's been mentioned: washing hands, wearing a mask indoors when you cannot socially distance, and getting up-to-date with vaccines.

Windsor-Essex County Health Unit
Windsor-Essex County Health Unit

"Only about 25 per cent of people are currently up to date on their COVID vaccine, and I would encourage people to get up to date," said Nesathurai.

"Getting vaccinated means that you're less likely to get sick from COVID, and you're less likely to be hospitalized from COVID, and you're less likely to die from COVID."

Resources needed for 'other important conditions'

During the pandemic, many staff at the health unit were redirected toward COVID-19 vaccination efforts and tracking the illness in the community.

It meant some programs were put on hold.

McMaster University
McMaster University

Now, Nesathurai says residents should do their part to help alleviate the strain on the health-care system.

"The public health service's goal is to try to advance the health of the people of Windsor-Essex, and infectious diseases are clearly important — COVID, influenza, RSV. But there are also other important public health goals," said Nesathurai.

"As we have an increased burden of respiratory disease, that takes away our focus and resources from other important conditions as well. So I would ask everyone to do their part as best as they can to minimize the burden of respiratory disease moving forward."