Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is expecting the 2023-2024 respiratory virus season to be similar its last, when COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) surged at the same time to press health-care staff and the health system to the point the Red Cross had to help.
"The system is strained, particularly as it relates to health and human resources, with little surge capacity for anticipated staff absenteeism," wrote Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches in a Sept. 7 report to the city's health board.
With updated vaccines generally a few weeks away, COVID spread started started increasing last month and already poses a high risk to health-care settings. The region is also starting to see flu cases again.
Here's more about what the health unit says to expect from viruses and its work to protect people against them.
What is this flu season looking like?
Unlike last year, OPH anticipates the impact of the flu on children to be higher than it was before the pandemic.
This year in Australia, which is examined for an idea of what could come to Canada, the two groups most likely to be hospitalized with the flu are people over the age of 65 and children aged five to 12, according to OPH.
Rates among children suggest they are at greater risk than usual of being hospitalized due to the current flu strain, the health unit said.
Further compounding the issue, OPH said, is the fact that flu vaccine uptake among children is typically low because some parents may not view it as important.
Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, in a file photo from last autumn. She says she's concerned flu shot uptake among children is too low. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
When will vaccines be available?
Health Canada recently approved Moderna's updated COVID vaccine for people six months of age and older.
OPH expects to receive the initial doses in late September and will be prioritizing the highest-risk populations, including people who are living in long-term care homes, have a chronic health condition or are pregnant.
As for the general population, OPH expects the vaccine will be widely available at the end of October.
The seasonal flu vaccine will follow a similar timeline. Ontario said last week these shots will be available for the general public as of Oct. 30.
Health Canada also recently approved the first vaccine to protect against RSV in seniors.
Ontario said it will be given to people age 60 and over in long-term care and elder care homes, along with some retirement homes, and that it's working to allow pharmacists to give it.
OPH said it is waiting on details from the province before it can confirm this timeline.
Where will shots be available?
Flu and COVID vaccines will be available at most pharmacies and some primary-care providers in Ottawa, OPH said.
OPH will also make shots available through its community clinics and hubs, after-school clinics in select neighbourhoods, clinics in underserved rural areas and some care homes.
For anyone who is unable to leave their home, OPH offers in-home vaccination.
OPH will be updating an online hub with the latest information throughout the respiratory virus season.
Workers at a mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinic at an Ottawa Community Housing building in early May 2021. (Francis Ferland/CBC)
What else does OPH recommend?
The health unit said in its report it wants to shift its messaging "from 'COVID-only prevention' towards a broader community understanding that 'all respiratory illnesses require prevention and mitigation measures' that can protect individuals and improve the public's health."
High vaccination rates mean lower spread of COVID and the flu, fewer deaths and less pressure on the health-care system, it said. OPH's focus is on young children and people with barriers to getting it, which is why it's bringing vaccines to some of those places described above.
OPH says other tools to protect yourself and others from respiratory viruses include staying home until you don't have a fever and your symptoms have steadily improved, wearing a mask (especially for 10 days after your symptoms start), keeping hands and surfaces clean, covering sneezes and coughs and seeing others in well-ventilated, less-crowded places.
Free rapid COVID tests are available at more than 30 location across Ottawa through OPH, which said it's especially important for vulnerable people eligible for COVID antivirals to have tests on hand and have a plan to get that medication if they test positive.