Saskatchewan has not had a documented case of influenza so far in 2021, but doctors are concerned that when the flu season begins, it will burden a health-care system that has already reached its limits because of COVID-19 cases.
Dr. Mahli Brindamour, a general pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said she's worried about the outcome of this year's flu season after seeing an unusual increase in respiratory viruses in children.
She works in a Saskatoon hospital with admitted children, as well as in community clinical settings where she's noticed viruses like rhinovirus and adenovirus, which typically don't surface as often during the summer months.
"[That] makes me quite worried about the influenza season," she said.
Brindamour isn't certain why other viruses have surfaced earlier and more seriously than last year, but theorizes it could be because children's immune responses have changed and pandemic restrictions have lifted.
Influenza has already been detected in Quebec and Ontario, and Brindamour expects it will come to Saskatchewan soon.
She said that there are already several intensive care admissions for respiratory viruses.
A regular flu season during COVID-19 is scary to imagine, she said.
Winter months tend to send more kids into hospitals, Brindamour said, even reaching overcapacity. But this year, adults have been assigned to pediatric ICUs to because of limited space in hospitals.
"If we see this again, in addition to COVID, I fear an extremely large catastrophe in the healthcare system … it's going to be a dire catastrophe."
She is also concerned about the prospect of children contracting both COVID-19 and another respiratory virus, like the flu, at the same time. Children are more susceptible to influenza, and both viruses concurrently could overwhelm their immune response.
Saskatchewan's Ministry of Health hasn't released an influenza surveillance report this year. The latest report posted to the province's website was for the 2019-20 influenza season.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority did not respond before deadline to a question about why there wasn't a report for last year.
The 2019-20 report showed there were 2,424 cases of Type A and Type B influenza from Dec. 8, 2019 to March 21, 2020.
Flu season in Canada
In the 2020-21 national flu season, which concluded at the end of August, there were 69 reported cases of influenza, according to Health Canada — dramatically lower than the average of 52,000 in each of the past six seasons.
In the past year, the number of influenza tests were higher than the average across Canada, but positive test results for influenza have been nearly non-existent.
"With all the public health measures and the staying indoors that people practise, the masking, we saw very little flu in Saskatchewan last year," said Dr. Johnmark Opondo, a Saskatchewan Health Authority medical health officer in Saskatoon.
Between Aug. 29 and Sept. 25, there were at least 2,000 more tests for influenza each week than last year, and at least three times more tests than the average number of tests, according to Health Canada.
From Sept. 19 to 25, there were 8,709 tests this year — compared with that week's average of 2,502.
In the same week, 0.1 per cent of the tests were positive, compared to the average of 1.3 per cent. In the week prior, week 37, 0.04 per cent of the tests were positive, compared to the average of about one per cent.
Opondo said that traditionally, a weak flu season could indicate a spike the following year, so the health authority is preparing to "detect any influenza activity."
The health authority announced earlier this week that people can now begin booking appointments for flu vaccinations.
Vaccinations are available through clinics and certain pharmacies for anyone six months or older beginning Oct. 12.
Influenza vaccinations and COVID-19 vaccinations can also be administered at the same time. The health authority did not respond how often or when that would happen before publication.
The authority was also not able to answer how testing capacities for either virus would be affected by the other.