Ontario could be in for a “rough” influenza season, according to infectious diseases experts, possibly leading to additional strain on the province’s struggling health-care system.
Health researchers have been studying the impact of the flu season in Australia — which serves as a precursor of the virus’s spread in the northern hemisphere — and found a steep increase in the volume of cases and hospitalizations.
“Their flu season started earlier than usual, it came in like a lion and they actually had a pretty rough influenza season all things considered,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist with the University Health Network (UHN).
“It’s extraordinarily likely that we’ll have a flu season and we’ll see significantly more cases this year than we did in the past couple of years.”
The Australian government tracked 223,678 flu cases this year, of which more than 1,700 led to hospital admission. While influenza activity remains low in Canada, according to the Federal government’s tracking system, health-care experts are expressing concern about what’s to come.
In Ontario, the past two flu seasons were milder than normal largely owing to the province’s introduction of universal masking, physical distancing and even economic lockdowns as a means to contain the spread of COVID-19 — measures which were eliminated by the Ford government earlier this year.
“Flu hasn’t gone away, it’s gone into hiding because we’ve been isolating and social distancing,” said Dr. Camille Lemieux, chief of family medicine at UHN. “And now that we’re relatively back to normal with our lives we have the prime opportunity for the flu to circulate.”
To date, Public Health Ontario has tracked just 12 lab-confirmed cases of influenza in the province but is concerned enough that the provincial agency is holding a seminar later this month to update health-care administrators on the potential impact.
“With the lifting of many of the provincial public health measures implemented during earlier phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as increased influenza virus activity in the southern hemisphere, it is important to plan for the possibility of co-circulation of COVID-19, influenza, and other respiratory viruses in the upcoming 2022-23 season,” the invitation said.
Adding to the circulation of multiple viruses, Lemieux warns that with a two-year hiatus in the spread of influenza, individual immunity may have waned.
“The number of cases is going to be high. I think we’re going to see a lot of symptomatic flu, meaning people are sicker from the flu and I’m concerned that we’re going to see more hospital admissions as well,” Lemieux said.
The Ford government said the province is focusing on stabilizing the health-care system for the “urgent pressures of today while preparing for a potential surge of respiratory illnesses this fall and winter surge” in order to keep the economy open.
“We are preparing to provide flu shots to Ontarians this fall so they can protect themselves and reduce the number of hospitalizations due to influenza and encourage anyone who is feeling sick to stay home,” the ministry of health said in a statement.
The province said the flu vaccine will be rolled out in line with the recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization which placed the priority on elderly residents in long-term care, hospitalized patients, health care workers and the immunocompromised.
Lemieux said she’s been recommending patients receive both the bivalent COVID-19 vaccine as well as the influenza vaccine this fall, while other infectious diseases specialists underscored the seriousness of this incoming wave.
“Oftentimes people think of the flu as a little cough, or cold or sniffle – it’s not,” said Bogoch. “The flu is a serious respiratory virus, every year it kills half a million people on earth.”