An Alberta disease expert is urging people in the province to get their flu shot when it rolls out in October, saying that everyone will need to be even more careful to avoid overloading the health-care system amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The most important thing that people could do this fall would be to get the flu shot,” Dr. Kirsten Fiest, a professor of epidemiology and critical care medicine at the University of Calgary, said Tuesday.
“If they haven’t got it in the past, this would be the year,” Fiest said. “Without a doubt, it is one of the most critical public health things people could do, in addition to wearing masks and maintaining distancing.
“Getting a flu shot is essential.”
When and where will the flu shot be available?
The province is set to roll out the influenza vaccine on Oct. 13 for vulnerable populations, like seniors in long-term care and homeless Albertans.
“Health practitioners will begin offering vaccines to vulnerable groups as soon as they receive it, which should be by Oct. 13 at the latest,” said Tom McMillan, a spokesperson for Alberta Health.
“This will be done through the Alberta Outreach Program.”
He added that all Albertans will be able to get the vaccine when the provincial immunization campaign begins on Monday, Oct. 19.
Alberta Health Services will offer the vaccine through pre-booked appointments to children under five and their family and household members. There will be no drop-in immunizations at AHS clinics for the flu vaccine to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Those over the age of five can get their flu vaccine at their local pharmacy. Physicians will also offer the vaccine to Albertans nine and older. Some doctors may offer vaccines to children six months and older, but people are asked to check with their physician’s office.
People who do not have a provincial health care number or who live in a community where there are no other immunizing health-care providers can call Health Link at 811 to seek immunization through AHS.
In June, Alberta Health told Global News it is ordering more doses of the influenza vaccine this year in anticipation of increased demand.
Last year, 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. Health officials expect there will be more interest in getting the shot this year.
On Oct. 1, the province’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the 1.96 million vaccine doses that have been ordered are a record number for the province.
“I want to highlight the importance of getting the flu shot,” she said.
According to Hinshaw, health practitioners will begin reaching out to seniors as soon as they receive the vaccine, which should be no later than Oct. 13..
“This work will help ensure that vulnerable Albertans, including those in continuing care facilities, are immunized as soon as possible,” she said. “For the rest of us, six months and older, Alberta’s immunization program beings on Monday, Oct. 19.
“Getting immunized this year will look a little different than in the past. As we learn to live with COVID-19, we are adapting influenza service delivery to reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus. We will be encouraging all Albertans aged five and older to get immunized free of charge at any participating pharmacy or through their physician’s office.
“Immunization at public health clinics will be only by appointment and focused on delivering vaccines to children under five and their parents or other household members, to individuals who don’t have a provincial health-care number and to those who live in a community where there are no other immunizing health-care providers.
“As well, for the first time, Alberta will be providing a high dose influenza vaccine for residents of provincially funded long-term care beds who are 65 and older.”
Hinshaw said public health measures and booking processes will be implemented at pharmacies and doctors’ offices to minimize potential exposure to the novel coronavirus while getting vaccinated.
“I’m urging all Albertans, especially seniors and those who are high risk, to get immunized when this program starts later this month,” she said. “Do it for yourself and do it for those around you.
“When you get immunized, you protect not just your own health, but the health of your loved ones as well as more vulnerable seniors, young children and those with chronic health conditions.”
Fiest said she believes more people will get the vaccination this year as public health is more on the mind for most people.
“People are just more aware of the effects of upper respiratory illnesses in general,” she said, “based on what they’ve heard, the advice from physicians in the province to follow the public health guidance. Hopefully, it’s just kind of improved those behaviours across the board.”
Hinshaw said that part of the reason Alberta is expecting higher demand for influenza vaccination this year is because Australia, whose flu season begins earlier, already saw significantly higher demand than normal in that country.
Vaccine, distancing could prevent ‘double whammy’
Fiest added that she believes the social distancing that people have now made a part of their daily lives could also help lower the influenza rates. However, if influenza hits at the same time as another COVID-19 wave, that’s when it could become problematic.
“The big concern would also be overwhelming the resources of the health-care system. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that people with COVID-19 could get influenza or vice versa,” she said.
“It really scares me, actually, the potential to have this double whammy.”
She added that the reason people can be infected with both COVID-19 and influenza is because they are two distinct viruses, with different etiology (causes).
“By keeping the number of influenza cases low, you will also help our health system focus on the COVID response,” Hinshaw said, adding that it will help everyone if Alberta is able to minimize respiratory illness of any kind.
One positive note is that there is some evidence from Australia’s 2020 flu season — which takes place over North America’s summer — that there were fewer cases and deaths from influenza due to increased health measures related to the pandemic.
In a report released July 31, Australia’s health ministry noted that “influenza and influenza-like illness activity are lower than average across all systems for this time of year.”
Australia had 36 laboratory-confirmed flu deaths from January to July 26, 2020, the report said. Over the same period a year earlier, there were 383 confirmed deaths.
However, Australia’s flu season fell over a period that saw major lockdowns and stay-home orders from the government due to COVID-19. Alberta’s government has made it clear it does not intend to implement a second lockdown.
“We have to be focused on the imperative of not just saving lives but also saving livelihoods,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said on Sept. 9.
Flu vs. COVID-19 numbers
In 2019-20, there were 1,534 hospitalizations and 39 in-hospital deaths among Albertans with lab-confirmed influenza. In the season before, from 2018-19, there were 1,976 hospitalizations and 52 deaths.
As of Sept. 26, there have been 809 hospitalizations related to COVID-19 in Alberta and 261 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic in March, according to officials.
–With files from Julia Wong, Leslie Young and Phil Heidenreich Global News