As children get ready to go back to school in Alberta, health professionals are also preparing and bracing for flu season.
However, there may be lessons learned from countries in the southern hemisphere that have already completed their flu seasons.
Countries with similar healthcare systems, such as Australia, recorded their lowest number of flu cases in recent history, according to Dr. Craig Jenne, infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary.
“This is extremely good and what we’re learning from this is we believe these low numbers are due to the physical separation and other infection control measures that were brought in to deal with COVID,” he said.
However, it is difficult to compare Australia with what Canada could see this fall because Australia’s flu season fell around March, when the country was under severe lockdown because of the pandemic.
Most parts of Alberta’s economy have reopened.
“Although we will get some protection from physical separation, handwashing, limited numbers indoors, wearing masks in particular, it is likely to be less effective than what we saw in Australia because we have reopened our businesses and our economy and our schools to a much greater extent than what Australia had during the peak of their flu season,” Jenne said.
Flu vaccination will play a critical role in what transpires in the province in the fall.
“We’re optimistic that people will understand the value of a flu shot this year. We do know if we get a large surge in influenza cases in … Alberta, this will be a heavy tax on the healthcare system,” Jenne said. “People who have a cough, fever or fatigue are going to present to the emergency room not knowing if it’s influenza or COVID.
“We’re going to see a much larger demand on our testing capacity, on our ability to do swabs on these patients so [that uses] front-line healthcare worker time, laboratory time, contact-tracing time.”
More doses of flu vaccine ordered
In June, Alberta Health told Global News it is ordering more doses of the influenza vaccine this year.
In 2019 to 2020, the province ordered 1.6 million doses of the vaccine; this year, it is ordering approximately 360,000 more doses for a total of roughly two million doses.
“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,” a statement from Health Minister Tyler Shandro to Global News said.
The influenza immunization program typically starts in October of each year.
Higher demand anticipated for flu vaccinations
Christine Hughes, a professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta, said higher demand of the flu vaccination is anticipated this year.
Hughes cited a survey done for the Canadian Pharmacists Association, showing 57 per cent of Canadians plan to get the flu shot this year; 45 per cent of those surveyed said they got vaccinated last year.
The same survey showed 34 per cent said they are more likely to get the flu vaccine because of COVID-19.
“I think, again, that’s similar to what was seen in other parts of the world – that there is increased interest because of COVID-19 and increased public health promotion and the importance of preventing influenza during COVID-19,” Hughes said.
Hughes said COVID-19, the flu and the common cold have overlapping symptoms so the only way to know definitively what a person may have is to use the province’s self-assessment tool and get tested. If testing is not possible, she said self-isolation is recommended until symptoms resolve.
Hughes also said it is possible to get both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time but the consequences of that are still unclear.