Health Minister Christine Elliott warned Monday that a second wave of COVID-19 in Ontario will be “more complicated and more difficult” than the first wave in part due to the approaching flu season.
In addition to a rise in coronavirus cases, a bad flu season could compound problems for the province’s health-care system, making it more vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed.
And with that, many Ontarians are wondering when and where they will be able to get the annual influenza vaccine.
Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious disease and control physician based out of Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, told Global News that the flu shot will have several benefits this year.
“The superficial concern is that COVID-19 and influenza look identical clinically,” he said.
“For most people presenting with symptoms of, you know, fever and cough, shortness of breath, it could be either. And so the flu shot is removing some of that background confusion. So if you’ve had your flu shot and you have symptoms like that, it’s less likely it’s going to be influenza and perhaps more likely it’s going to be COVID-19.”
Gardam said each winter, hospitals tend to see an excess number of patients due to the flu.
“The more people that are vaccinated against flu, then the fewer people that are going to be needing the health-care system with flu,” he said.
Gardam noted that other viruses also spread during flu season every year, which, when coupled together, pose serious challenges.
“If we had a bad season with that, that typically overwhelms our health-care system even at the best of times,” he said.
When will the flu shot be available?
Global News reached out to the Ministry of Health requesting information on when the flu shot may be available, but did not receive a date. However, some pharmacies reported staff will begin offering flu shots as of Oct. 7.
“It’s always a bit of a mystery every fall, although it typically comes the last half of October,” Gardam said.
Gardam said anyone looking to get the flu shot should get it early once it becomes available. He said it takes roughly two weeks to develop antibodies from the vaccine and noted that flu season is “definitely” underway in mid-November.
Where will Ontarians be able to get a flu vaccine?
In Ontario, flu shots are available in a variety of locations once they are distributed.
People are able to get the vaccines from pharmacies, family doctors and public health clinics.
“It is a fairly easy vaccine to get,” Gardam said.
Other health measures may be more effective than flu shot
While he will be encouraging everyone to get their flu shot this year as in years’ past, Gardam said the public health measures being taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 may be more effective than the vaccine.
“What’s really interesting in the southern hemisphere this year is their flu is down about 90 to 95 per cent and it dropped right when they brought in COVID-19 control measures,” he said.
“So really what that’s telling us is that if you take these control measures for flu, you can have a massive impact on influenza spread which sounds obvious but we’ve actually never proved that before. This is the first time that’s actually been proven because the world’s never done this before.”
Gardam said the flu shot — which varies in effectiveness from year to year due to virus mutation — never causes such significant reductions in virus spread like those observed in the southern hemisphere.
“Those kinds of measures have a huge impact on influenza and likely this fall, hopefully, we’ll have a very, very mild flu season because of the stuff we’re doing for COVID,” he said.
“This may be a lot of concern, but in the end actually not be a big deal for Canadians.”