Flu numbers at all time low in Alberta
CALGARY -- At this point during last year's flu season, Canada had already recorded 711 positive cases of influenza with Alberta logging 139 cases by Nov. 8, 2019.
This year there have been only 17 laboratory confirmed cases of influenza in Canada with none of those in Alberta.
In a briefing Monday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw praised Albertans for keeping the numbers down.
"We have called on all Albertans to do their part to support our health system by getting their flu shot, and you have answered that call. More than 1.1 million Albertans have already been immunized compared to about 940,000, at this time last year," said Hinshaw. "This is incredible and what is more encouraging is the successes that we are seeing as of today we have not had a single laboratory confirmed case of seasonal influenza, and therefore no hospitalizations, or deaths related to influenza this season."
In the 2019-2020 influenza season Alberta saw 8,470 lab confirmed cases and 41 influenza-related deaths of individuals who were hospitalized. Hinshaw stressed Monday that COVID-19 presents a far greater health risk than seasonal flu.
"COVID is more dangerous than influenza, both at an individual, and population level," said Hinshaw pointing to the dramatic difference between COVID-19 and influenza infections, and death in long-term care facilities.
"An illustrative example is that we have had 49 acute care COVID outbreaks in just seven and a half months; with 42 deaths linked to these outbreaks. This is despite extraordinary measures to prevent spread in the community, and in the hospital. This is far worse than the worst acute care outbreak numbers related to influenza in the past five years — 40 outbreaks with 13 deaths in a full year."
Health experts feared the second wave of COVID-19 would hit at the same time that influenza numbers traditionally spike in Canada, making it even more difficult for hospitals to keep up. But across the country influenza infections have been dramatically reduced thus far.
In the first week of November, not one province or territory reported a single patient hospitalized with the flu, compared with 60 during the same week a year ago. In 2019, provinces reported 147 lab-confirmed cases of flu the first week of November. This year, they've reported four.
"Influenza is way behind the eight ball here," said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of infectious disease in the department of medicine at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
This comes even though more than twice as many people Canada-wide have been tested for flu than in most years — almost 10,000 tests done in the first week of November, compared to a six-year average of about 4,500.
"The percentage of laboratory tests positive for influenza has remained at exceptionally low levels," says the Public Health Agency of Canada's weekly flu watch report.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief medical officer of health, says the public health measures being taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 appear to be helping fight seasonal influenza.
"That's a pretty good sign that the hygienic and public health measures we've implemented for COVID-19, are obviously having an impact," said Tam. "Also, as everybody's heard, there's a phenomenal uptake in the influenza vaccination programs. So that's also going to add another layer of protection, which is absolutely essential right now.
"You cannot afford to have influenza cases coming in and taking up emergency room and hospital, capacity so that's definitely and thanks to everybody who worked on influenza we have had, I think a very important impact on reducing health care system needs."
Evans agrees saying most of the credit for the low flu numbers goes to the public health measures taken to slow COVID-19, like the hand washing, social distancing and mask-wearing, as well as the dramatic drop in international travel.
The government of Canada is also urging Canadians to get a flu vaccination and we seem to be listening. Canadian provinces ordered almost 25 per cent more flu shots than last year, many can't keep up with demand.
Less than a month after the flu vaccine became available in Alberta has already vaccinated 1.14 million people. In 2019, the province vaccinated 1.4 million total through the entire flu season.
Evans said a more-vaccinated population fighting back a virus that is less prevalent, is going to make this flu season a "non-event". Not only will that help hospitals cope with COVID-19, it means fewer Canadians are going to die.
With files from The Canadian Press.