As cases of the flu continue to spread across the country, influenza activity has crossed the seasonal threshold, according to Canada’s public health agency.
With the weekly percentage of positive tests for flu sitting at 6.4 per cent — beyond the seasonal threshold of 5.0 per cent — the country could be headed toward an influenza epidemic, according to a recent report from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
“Flu season has started and it’s coming out with a bang,” Isaac Bogoch, infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital, told Global News.
Read more: Ontario prepares for flu season
Though influenza cases happen on a yearly basis, according to Bogoch, this flu season is emerging faster than most.
Flu cases 'much greater' this season
Despite the first two years of the COVID pandemic, where influenza activity remained low, the percentage of tests that are currently positive for flu are “much greater” than what is normally expected, Bogoch said.
Next week, if influenza levels remain this high, or anywhere over the 5.0 per cent threshold, PHAC plans to announce a nation-wide epidemic, the agency said in their most recent flu report. Between Oct. 16 and Oct. 29, 1,508 laboratory detections of the flu were reported.
Provinces including Ontario and New Brunswick have recently reported localized influenza activity in four regions. Additionally, New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Alberta have all also reported sporadic activity in 20 regions.
At this time in 2016, influenza activity sat at inter-seasonal levels with the majority of Canadian regions reporting low or no influenza activity. In 2017 at this time, it remained below the seasonal threshold.
So far this flu season, more than half of those infected were children and teenagers.
Strain on healthcare
A total of 17 laboratory-confirmed influenza outbreaks have also been listed across Canada since reporting began on Aug. 28. Six of these outbreaks were in long-term care facilities, three in acute care facilities and one in a school or daycare.
The increased flu activity is primarily seen in the influenza A strain of the virus, according to PHAC.
Across the border in the United States, an early spike in influenza cases has pushed hospitalization rates to the highest mark in a decade for this time of year, U.S. health officials said Friday.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if (Canada sees) what they see, a few weeks later,” said Bogoch. “One of the challenges we’re having is our health system is already stretched. We’re already in a difficult position and flu season is really in its infancy.”
“We know that it’s going to add additional stressors to an already stretched health-care system,” Bogoch added.
In Canada each year, the flu causes an estimated 12,200 hospital stays, according to the federal government. It is also among the ten leading causes of death in the country, taking the lives of approximately 3,500 people each year.
Since the start of flu season this year, 72 influenza-associated hospitalizations have been reported. There have also been eight ICU admissions.
Get the flu shot, say experts
The best way to stay protected from the flu, health experts say, is to get the flu shot.
“It’s really straightforward. It’s important for people to get vaccinated,” Bogoch said. “(Vaccines are) very good in terms of protecting people from getting the flu and if you do get it, they can mitigate the severity of illness.”
Hand hygiene and wearing a mask indoors can also “significantly reduce” the risk of catching the flu or other respiratory viruses, according to Bogoch.
Other health experts, including Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, have also urged Canadians to get their flu shot, along with their bivalent COVID-19 vaccine to stay protected as the colder months approach.
Apart from flu, PHAC has also been preparing for a “worst-case scenario” when it comes to COVID-19 variants this fall as a resurgence of the virus looms.
“We’ve just been through the biggest pandemic of the current era, and it is very important to take note of lessons learned and be as objective as we can,” Tam said last month.
Other than the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) activity has also increased above expected levels for this time of year, according to PHAC.
When it comes to the transmission of other respiratory viruses, though, PHAC says activity is “relatively stable” and near expected for this time of year.
— With files from The Canadian Press and Reuters