Doctors in British Columbia are warning that the province could see a nasty flu season this year after the influenza virus all but vanished last season.
Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, said he’s watching this year carefully for a number of reasons.
The biggest factor, he said, is the difference between current, relaxed COVID-19 protocols and the COVID-19 restrictions that were in place last winter, such as bans on social gatherings and travel restrictions.
“Flu is transmitted in a way that’s similar to COVID, and since we had all of these public health measures in place to prevent COVID transmission, they were even more effective at preventing influenza transmission,” he said.
“It may put in people’s minds the idea that flu is gone since there was none last year and nothing could be further from the truth.”
Conway said he was also concerned that because there was no major flu season last year, people likely won’t have the same level of antibodies against influenzas that they would have developed if the virus was circulating.
The potential for people to contract both COVID and the flu at the same time — a situation doctors have little experience or evidence to respond with — is also a worry, he added.
Over the course of the 2020-2021 flu season, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control says influenza surveillance conducted more than 90,000 tests, turning up just 18 positive results.
By comparison, in 2019-2020 a similar number of tests detected more than 6,600 positive results. The five-year average from 2015 to 2019 was 5,605 positive detections through flu surveillance.
No flu cases have been diagnosed so far in the 2021-2022 season, but UBC professor and pediatrician Dr. Ran Goldman says he anticipates a significant jump from last year.
“With more activity in the community, I’m quite concerned we might see a stronger effect of the flu as well as other viruses that propagate in the community,” he said.
With the Delta variant continuing to drive strong COVID-19 case numbers, predominantly among the unvaccinated, Goldman urged people to get their flu shots so as to avoid a potential “twindemic.”
“Influenza, many times, is a much more serious disease in young children,” Goldman said.
“So it’s really important to do whatever we can to protect our children with what we have, and a vaccine against flu is available.”
It’s a message Conway echoed, as COVID-19 vaccination allows most British Columbians to return to some semblance of normal life.
The implementation of the province’s vaccine passport has seen a return to indoor spectator sports, concerts and movies, and restrictions on personal gatherings have been eliminated.
“Vaccination against COVID does not protect you against influenza,” Conway warned, encouraging the public to avail themselves of both immunizations.
“Last year, we were operating at about 40 per cent or so of the normal in terms of the close interpersonal contacts — right now we’re close to 80 per cent and some people are back to 100 per cent.”
The B.C. CDC is expected to provide more information about flu vaccine availability in October.