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COVID, flu and RSV likely mean a challenging winter, says Etches

Someone in a mask walks past a flu shot sign on a pharmacy in Ottawa in October 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Someone in a mask walks past a flu shot sign on a pharmacy in Ottawa in October 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Ottawa's medical officer of health is again promoting COVID and flu vaccines as the city tackles a long and challenging respiratory illness season.

Dr. Vera Etches sent her first media statement of autumn Wednesday, going over the "very active respiratory illness season" and offering ways for people to protect themselves and others.

COVID levels have been high in recent weeks, with pandemic trends stable or rising.

As of Tuesday the city had its most active, local COVID hospitalizations (50) since February after a summer with many more COVID patients than the previous two. It reported 31 COVID deaths during October.

Flu cases and test positivity are rising, Etches said, and the city's first flu outbreak came about a month earlier than normal. There's also more RSV in the city, putting an unprecedented load on the children's hospital.

In her previous update in mid-September, Etches said the months ahead may be challenging because of the impacts of respiratory illnesses. Wednesday, she said she predicts it will be challenging.

"This winter will be hard on our community as several respiratory viruses will be circulating simultaneously creating stressors on our community and our health-care system," she said.

Infectious disease experts explain the challenge 

Dr. Fahad Razak, a former head of the Ontario COVID-19 science advisory table who teaches medicine at St. Michael's Hospital, said the last two flu seasons were tame.

Influenza rates were low because the public health measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 also helped control the spread of the flu, Razak said, but those measures are no longer here.

"What it means is we have a population that has not been exposed to as much influenza the past couple of years and potentially would be at greater risk for [being] infected this year," Razak said.

Experts have also watched Australia, which just experienced its worst flu season in the past five years. Australia and New Zealand experience the flu season months before Ontario during North America's summer.

"They've seen a massive surge of cases. If that were to occur here that would seriously challenge our system," Razak said.

Ontario's hospital system also needs to plan for a significant surge because a 50 per cent increase in hospitalizations is possible and "not an exaggeration," Razak said.

"Practically, what is going to happen? I think that is the important question we need to ask ourselves," Razak said.

Australia's flu season also suggests it is important to receive your annual flu shot earlier than usual, Dr. Gerald Evans told CBC.

"We knew [the vaccine] was a match in the Southern hemisphere, and at this early stage it looks like a good match in the Northern hemisphere," said Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen's University.

Scientists design influenza vaccines months before the flu season. So far, lab testing suggests this year's vaccine protects against the influenza strains that are most likely to infect a person.

Handwashing a focus again

As Ottawa Public Health (OPH) has done in recent weeks, Etches said people should stay home when they're sick, see other people outside or in well-ventilated areas, and wear masks in crowded and indoor spaces.

She took pains to say the best way for people to protect themselves and the wider community is to stay updated on vaccinations.

"Our collective efforts can make a difference. I urge everyone to get their fall COVID-19 booster and their flu vaccine," she said, adding the option of using OPH's neighbourhood hubs to get COVID and flu vaccines if it's difficult to use other options.

Once a key part of pandemic safety messaging, and with this cocktail of viruses making the rounds in Ottawa, Etches recommends these types of activities again: washing hands often, not touching your hands, nose and mouth with unwashed hands to keep germs out of your system, and cleaning surfaces such as door handles that are touched often.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

"The precautions we took individually to get through previous waves of COVID-19 can and have worked," she said.

"Now is the time to implement these practices back into your daily routine to keep yourself, your family and those around you healthy."