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Experts in B.C. predicting bad flu season as people drop masks, return to travel

Estimated 12,200 Canadians hospitalized with flu annually during pre-pandemic years 
 

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After two years of record-low influenza rates, experts are warning the flu will likely be back in full swing this season.

That’s because of a general lifting of pandemic health measures, such as required masking, gathering size limits and travel restrictions, according to pharmacist Kim Myers.

“It definitely increases the spread of germs and colds,” said Myers, who works in the Greater Victoria area.

Health Canada estimates that in a non-pandemic year, about 12,200 Canadians are hospitalized with the flu or flu-like symptoms. Getting an exact number is difficult as only nine of the country’s provinces and territories report hospitalizations to the national flu surveillance system, FluWatch.

Flu hospitalizations dropped during pandemic

of those which do report — Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Alberta, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan — 5,176 influenza-related hospitalizations were reported during the 2017-2018 season and 3,657 were reported in 2018-2019.

During the 2019-2020 season, half of which occurred within the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 2,493 hospitalizations. That number dropped to zero in 2020-2021, again not including Ontario, Quebec, B.C. or Nunavut.

Myers said it’s hard to tell whether this year’s flu season will be as bad as pre-pandemic years, but that it will almost certainly be worse than the last year or two. She said the awareness the pandemic has raised around the importance of vaccines makes her hopeful more people will get the flu shot this year. Already, Myers said, people coming into her pharmacy are asking when shots will be available.

Possible correlation between COVID-19 and influenza vaccine uptake

B.C. did see a small spike in flu vaccine uptake in the first year of the pandemic. In 2018, 34.6 per cent of people got the shot, followed by 37.2 per cent in 2019 and 42.1 per cent in 2020, according to Statistics Canada. 2021 rates are not yet available.

A 2021 research paper published in medical journal Vaccine found the primary indicator of whether Canadians will get a vaccination is whether they have been vaccinated before, suggesting those who got the COVID vaccine may be more likely to get the influenza one.

More than 87 per cent of British Columbians have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine as of Sept. 26.

Beginning in early October, B.C. residents will have the option of receiving COVID vaccine boosters and flu shots at the same time. The province said it will have the capacity to vaccinate about 250,000 people per week that way.

Who is most impacted?

For the majority of people, the flu means up to a week of sickness, but for young children, elderly people and the immunocompromised the virus can make it significantly harder for them to fight off infections.

Health Canada said 3,500 deaths are influenza-related each year, although that number is based off a mathematical estimate, rather than actual yearly data.

Myers said the best thing people can do to stop the spread of the virus and protect those most vulnerable to it is to follow many of the same precautions put in place for COVID-19: get vaccinated, wash your hands, wear a mask, stay home if you’re sick and minimize your number of crowded public outings.

“It’s not just for themselves, it’s trying to do it for those around them who are vulnerable and for those who aren’t able to receive vaccines. It’s important that we try and do that to help protect them,” Myers said.