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Flu surge has waned but Albertans warned to brace for more

Doctors are urging Albertans to get vaccinated as flu shot uptake is only 26.6 per cent so far. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)
Doctors are urging Albertans to get vaccinated as flu shot uptake is only 26.6 per cent so far. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)

While influenza activity has dropped dramatically since its early and dramatic peak in Alberta, experts caution the province is not out of the woods yet.

According to Alberta Health Services data, there have been 8,495 confirmed cases of flu in the province so far this season and 90 deaths.

The data shows that 1,918 people have been hospitalized due to the flu to date, including 196 ICU admissions.

"This will be one of the bigger influenza seasons we've seen in recent memory," said Dr. Dan Gregson, a Calgary-based infectious disease physician.

According to Gregson, while influenza cases have dropped, hospitals are still dealing with the effects.

"There are increasing numbers of people coming into hospital with bacterial pneumonias after influenza.… Some are in and staying in because they have complications. And the other thing we see after influenza and COVID, for that matter, is strokes and heart attacks are up."

Alberta's first flu wave was driven by H3N2, a type of influenza A. And Gregson expects there is likely an H1N1 wave yet to come as well as an influenza B surge.

"It's a little bit difficult to say how big the H1N1 wave and influenza B waves will be. Influenza B is usually not as big a wave in the season but there's no reason H1N1 couldn't be a relatively big wave somewhere down the road."

CBC
CBC

Calgary's downward trend may already be coming to an end. The latest numbers show case counts in the zone are up very slightly for the first time in weeks.

The trouble is hospitals around the province are overwhelmed due to a combination of influenza, COVID-19 and other illnesses.

"The hospital I currently work in is full to the brim. There is no space," said Gregson, an associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.

He wants Albertans to know it's not too late to get their flu shot and he's urging high-risk people to talk with their health-care provider ahead of time to ensure they have a treatment plan in place in case they get sick.

At 26.6 per cent, flu shot uptake is roughly on par with the previous flu season but much lower than doctors would like to see.

Erin Collins/CBC
Erin Collins/CBC

"We have one of the lowest vaccine uptake rates for flu in the country," said Dr. Jia Hu, a Calgary public-health physician, who added the flu vaccine is proving to be a good match this year.

"Of course, I'm disappointed in the rates. And I wish people would get vaccinated. It's literally the easiest thing to do."

It's important people remember, he said, the flu season doesn't end until March or April, so there are many months to go.

"Our health system is in trouble. And it has been for a long time. So the more people that get immunized, it's less likely they'll, one, end up in hospital themselves — which is never pleasant — and, two, spare our hospital system from having to deal with more of these acute respiratory viruses."

Meanwhile, Alberta Children's Hospital, which had to redeploy staff due to an influx of respiratory illnesses, is seeing fewer influenza cases.

AHS announced Friday that the Flames Rotary House, which had to pause respite care in December so staff could help in the hospital, is reopening.

"We've seen a significant drop off in influenza cases. We're seeing a similar but not as significant decline in RSV.… At the beginning of this surge, we saw a real predominance of influenza. But fairly quickly it was the RSV that took over and predominated the admissions to our hospital," said Dr. Jennifer MacPherson, medical director at Alberta Children's Hospital.