Health officials in New Brunswick are expressing concerns about the return of the flu and the common cold as mask mandates are removed.
Masks have been mandatory in indoor public places in New Brunswick since early October 2020, but all COVID-19-related restrictions — including mask-wearing — are expected to be lifted when 75 per cent of the population is considered fully-vaccinated.
The province said that’s on track to occur by Aug. 2, the third and final phase of New Brunswick’s Path to Green.
New Brunswick Medical Society President Dr. Jeff Steeves said many patients at his ophthalmology practice are telling him they’re not ready to give up masks.
“And when I ask them, are you going to take them off, a few are excited, but many of them are saying they’ve worked really well,” Steeves said. “‘I didn’t get the flu last year. I haven’t had a cold in 16 months.'”
Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health told Global New on Monday flu cases in the province were “non-existent, practically,” during the pandemic.
Numbers provided by the Department of Health back up that claim.
“In the 2020-2021 season so far (up to June 19), 1 case of influenza B was reported, and no hospitalizations or deaths related to influenza were reported this season,” said Department of Health spokesman Bruce McFarlane, in an email to Global News.
But Russell also said viruses are making a comeback, especially in parts of the world where mandatory mask mandates are no longer in effect.
“We know that there has been a resurgence in viruses like Respiratory Syncytial Virus that affects children,” Russell said. “And we’re seeing that in some countries in the off-season, so we would normally see it in the winter but it’s happening in the summer. And, again, as a result of the fact that people are removing their masks in these jurisdictions and the fact that these viruses haven’t had a chance to circulate because everyone has been protected with all the public health measures.”
Steeves said when pandemic restrictions are lifted, New Brunswick will return to a “new normal,” where people may exercise more caution when completing daily tasks like going grocery shopping or to a movie.
He said it’s difficult to say how bad an upcoming cold and flu season might be because of changes in routine that will last beyond restrictions.
“A lot of people are still going to wear masks,” Steeves said. “We know to wash our hands more. I think we’re more cognizant of not getting in other people’s faces, that the six-foot separation is helpful to prevent infections.”
Steeves said he is concerned about immunization fatigue, as people emerge from getting two doses of COVID-19 vaccine just in time for flu shot season. He said he’s hoping people will still get the flu shot after witnessing how effective vaccinations can be during the pandemic.