There have been no lab-confirmed cases of influenza reported in Alberta so far this flu season.
Weekly data released by Alberta Health Services Thursday showed there have been zero lab-confirmed cases of influenza and no hospitalizations yet this season.
Dr. Grace Salvo, a medical officer of health with Alberta Health Services, said the data doesn’t necessarily mean there is no influenza circulating in Alberta, it means that it hasn’t yet been detected.
She stressed that every season, the flu comes at different times, “so it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing it in our population.”
“Every year, the influenza changes a little bit and that’s why every year people need to get re-vaccinated. So we’re expecting that eventually influenza will come, as it comes every year, and it’ll probably be a little bit different than last year,” Salvo explained.
To compare this year’s numbers to last, by Nov. 8, 2019, there were 139 lab-confirmed cases of influenza in Alberta. By that time, 42 people had been admitted to hospital with lab-confirmed influenza. No deaths related to the flu were reported at this time last year.
Going back another year, 920 cases of lab-confirmed influenza had been reported by Nov. 10, 2018 and 205 people were admitted to hospital across Alberta. No deaths from the flu had been reported at this time in 2018.
Salvo said the measures people are taking to curb the spread of COVID-19 are likely playing a role when it comes to the influenza spread so far.
“I’m assuming that means people are staying home when they’re sick because of the COVID measures and they’re washing their hands and practicing social distancing. So we’re hoping that even though influenza will come — we’re sure it’s going to come — that people keep on using those measures to keep those numbers nice and low.”
When it comes to testing for the virus, Salvo believes there is actually more influenza testing being done right now because of the pandemic.
“In the past when people had the flu, often they would stay home. Also, when we had sites that were under outbreak, we would just test a few people to see if it was the flu or not. Whereas now, we’re most consistently doing that respiratory panel testing which really tests for all the different respiratory viruses,” she explained.
“That being said, when people go for COVID testing, they don’t get tested for influenza routinely.”
The decrease in cases this year also comes alongside an increase in the number of people who have been immunized compared to previous years.
As of Nov. 7 this year, 1,142,419 Albertans have received their flu shot. As of this time last year, Salvo said just over 900,000 Albertans had been vaccinated.
Salvo attributes the uptick in vaccinations to people being more public health conscience amid the pandemic.
“It’s hard to ignore what’s happening with COVID and people want to keep themselves safe and healthy throughout the winter.”
Ghada Haggag, a pharmacist at All Care Pharmacy, said she’s seen a particular increase in older people wanting to be vaccinated.
“The new thing this year is, we’ve got many people — senior people, like 60 and more than 60 — and they got the flu shot for the first time in their life. This is really good. It means they are listening.”
Haggag hopes it will be a record year for vaccinations, and hopes to reach 50 per cent of the population.
“If you have kids less than five, if you have a neighbour, a colleague, a friend who’s 65 and above who has a chronic disease or immunocompromised, they are at high risk. Please protect them and yourself by taking the flu shot.”
In total during the 2019/2020 flu season, 1,438,866 Albertans were vaccinated.
Comparing flu to COVID-19
Salvo said while the symptoms of each disease are quite similar, there are differences between the viruses.
“When they do the test, the test is actually very different. So when they go to the lab they’ll either detect the COVID virus or they will detect the influenza virus, but there’s really no similarity between them.
“So there’s no mixing and matching at the lab between those two results. They’re actually quite distinct.”
However, because the symptoms are so similar, people aren’t going to be able to tell them apart unless they are tested. Salvo encouraged anyone with symptoms to take the online assessment and arrange for COVID-19 testing.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health has also previously spoken about the differences between influenza and COVID-19.
On Nov. 3, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said she has heard people dismiss COVID-19 as being no different from influenza. However, while she noted there are “some similarities,” she stressed the differences between the viruses and the challenges that each present to Albertans.
“First, there is no vaccine for COVID-19, unlike influenza. Second, this virus is more deadly than influenza, especially seasonal influenza. While the true mortality of COVID-19 will take some time to fully understand, the preliminary data is clear,” Hinshaw said.
“In the last four influenza seasons, the peak number of deaths we have recorded in a full year is 92. In just eight months, there have been 338 deaths from COVID-19, despite taking extraordinary measures to contain transmission.”
Alberta’s death toll from COVID-19 has since climbed to 393 as of Thursday afternoon.
What can Albertans expect from this year’s flu season?
Salvo said health officials often follow Australia’s flu season closely to see how the season will unfold in North America. This year, she noted that the country saw less flu spread that in previous years. However, their flu season came at a time when strict COVID-19 measures were in place.
“That was to be expected,” she said.
“We are expecting this year that those social distancing measures, everything that prevents COVID will prevent influenza, because it’s really transmitted the same way — through those droplets when people are coughing, when people are talking, when they’re in close contact sharing food.”
She urged people to get vaccinated for the flu. For more information on where you can get your flu shot, visit the AHS website.