Alberta doctors say fall will see spike in respiratory viruses with influenza and COVID-19

Click to play video: 'Autumn will see spike in respiratory viruses with influenza and COVID-19: Alberta doctors'
Autumn will see spike in respiratory viruses with influenza and COVID-19: Alberta doctors
Doctors say we typically see an increase in respiratory viruses in the fall. So what does that look like this year with COVID-19? Julia Wong reports. – Jun 12, 2020

Albertans are being reminded that there is typically a spike in influenza and other respiratory viruses in the fall, leading to questions of what this fall could look like with both influenza and COVID-19.

Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease physician and director of infection prevention and control at the University of Alberta Hospital, said the respiratory viral season typically starts in October and November.

“There is some concern that we may see increasing numbers of COVID-19 while we see increases in other respiratory illnesses,” she said.

“That is the time when we see people having more illnesses, so more coughing, more runny noses, etc and those are the vehicle, respiratory secretions that are the vehicles by which we transmit these types of things.

“If people are ill with other respiratory illnesses, it’s certainly possible it could be a vehicle for spreading COVID as well.”

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Smith said that it is hard to predict when, or if, there will be a second wave of COVID-19 in Alberta, saying it largely depends on the actions of Albertans, and whether that would coincide with the influenza season, but said there could be an impact on the healthcare system if so.

“During viral respiratory season we do see increasing numbers of patients being admitted to hospital and so it does stretch our healthcare resources a little bit.

“If we added on top of that more admissions due to COVID-19, it could certainly stretch our resources and may result in us having to have to ramp back down in terms of our elective surgeries etc if we really got into a situation where we were having really large numbers,” she said.

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Dr. Darren Markland, an intensive care physician at the Royal Alex, however, does not believe the flu and COVID-19 will be a double hit on the healthcare system.

“I don’t think it’ll be any worse. It’s going to be COVID, that’ll be the issue in the fall,” he said.

Markland said the same interventions that control COVID-19 control influenza.

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“When we quarantine people for COVID, our flu incidents went almost to zero. It’s a package deal,” he said.

Smith said it is possible to get both viruses at the same time; she said that COVID-19 is unique in that the virus has high viral loads early on in the illness and people are able to transmit when they are in the presymptomatic phase whereas most other respiratory viruses are transmitted when an individual is showing symptoms, such as a runny nose and cough.

Click to play video: 'How can you tell the difference between allergies, flu and COVID-19?'
How can you tell the difference between allergies, flu and COVID-19?

“All the precautions that we’ve become so good at taking are the things we need to continue to do. So, washing our hands, not touching our face, if we’re out in public and we can’t physically distance then potentially we’ll still be wearing masks and staying home if you’re ill,” Smith said.

According to the Alberta College of Pharmacy, the vaccination rate last flu season was 32 per cent. Smith said she hopes there is more interest this fall.

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“My hope is there will be an increase in the desire to be vaccinated to protect ourselves from what we can protect ourselves from,” she said.

Province ramping up vaccination program

A statement from Health Minister Tyler Shandro to Global News said the government is expanding the influenza vaccination program this fall.

“We’re ordering about 360,000 more doses of the vaccine than usual, a total of nearly two million doses,” he said. In 2018 to 2019, the province purchased 1.6 million doses of the vaccine.

“We’re going to offer a high-dose flu vaccine to all seniors in continuing care facilities for the first time ever and expand our work to target at-risk populations.”

The province has been expanding its testing capacity with the goal of running 16,000 tests a day.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said, on May 7, that the province is expecting to see influenza in the fall and expanded lab capacity will help with testing.

“Some of this enhanced testing capacity can be used, not just for COVID, but also for influenza,” she said.

“We can respond to demand. We can respond to surges and that’s what we’re making sure we have put in place.”


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